Planning ahead is essential but not common for many older Australians living with a mental illness, according to research by the national mental health charity SANE Australia.
‘Many people manage their mental illness over a number of years and they’re often pretty resilient; but as they get older, additional challenges impact on their lives,’ says Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia.
‘We’ve spoken with older people living with mental illness and while their experiences vary widely, declining physical health, an uncertain housing future and isolation are common concerns. All these factors can complicate mental health issues and prevent a person from ageing well,’ Heath explains.
‘Two in every three people we talked to haven’t discussed a plan for the future.’
Suitable housing is a real issue for some people, especially those financially disadvantaged. People living with a mental illness find it harder than the rest of the community to find and keep their own home. As they age, they often find themselves in less than ideal circumstances.
For many of the 40 years Graeme has lived with Schizophrenia, he rented a house with the support of mental health services. But when the Melbourne artist’s circumstances changed, the 68 year old found himself in a residential aged care facility.
‘I didn’t realise I had options,’ he explains. ‘I was unwell at the time, and I needed the extra supports, but I’m well now and it would be nice to have my own place again where I can paint and do my work,’ says Graeme. ‘I still need help around the house but I didn’t know there are services that can give me that support.’
Research shows home-based community supports together with mental health treatment for older people can reduce the likelihood of early admission to residential care, as well as improve quality of life and reduce healthcare costs. ‘People need to know these services exist,’ Heath says.
‘We need to get the message out especially because we know our population is ageing. By 2040, 1 in 5 people will be over 65,’ Heath adds. ‘As the population continues to age, the number of older Australians living with mental illness will increase.’
According to Dr Rod McKay, Director of Psychiatry and Mental Health Programs at the NSW Institute of Psychiatry, it is important to ensure older people feel they are in control of their lives.
‘Too often older people, particularly those with a mental illness, feel decisions are taken out of their hands, contributing to a sense of hopelessness and despair,’ explains the lead author of a recent report on psychiatry services for older people prepared by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.
‘The process of planning ahead can be confronting,’ says Heath. ‘We’re talking about issues relating to legal and financial affairs and medical or mental health care. These are difficult conversations to have, but without them, we reduce the likelihood that we will be in control of these decisions later on. Planning ahead is crucial to ensure choice, comfort and quality of care.’
‘As a result of our research, SANE Australia has developed Ageing Well: A guide to planning ahead for older people who live with mental illness, their family and friends. We hope it will make this process easier,’ explains Heath.
The plain language guide looks at home and social supports, health, legal, and financial issues and includes a checklist to help work through the planning process.
‘Planning ahead can involve difficult conversations and choices. This guide is a helpful tool to start those conversations and prepare for the future,’ says Ian Yates, the Chief Executive of COTA for older Australians.
‘Good mental health is intrinsic to healthy ageing. Planning ahead and being prepared is a really important part of maintaining good mental health as we age,’ Heath adds.
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