I look after the mental health of older adults in the community. Despite common opinion, older adults are usually not more depressed – whilst physical deterioration commonly occurs, one is statistically more likely to enjoy better mental health as one grows older. Another myth, which is less positive, is the idea that people are only suicidal when depressed.
I have met many older people, who have killed themselves purely because they were old.
Back in 2015, at a Swiss euthanasia clinic, Gill Pharaoh, a retired palliative care nurse, ended her life. She had been involved in the care of several terminally ill patients, and had had a long and successful life, but Ms Pharaoh was not terminally ill. Her decision to end her life was based purely on a fear of old age. As she told the Sunday Times, her nursing experience had led to the awareness that growing old was “awful”, and that she did not want to be remembered as “a sort of old lady hobbling up the road with a trolley”. Several times I too have met patients like Gill – elderly, physically healthy people, with no hint of depression – but are suicidal simply because they are afraid of ageing.
The challenge of the individual facing their final stage in life is the hardest battle that any person can face. Determining what constitutes “healthy ageing” is difficult. SANE Australia’s report on “Growing Older, Staying Well” found that access to mental health services, avoiding social isolation, the appropriate management of loss and grief, and dealing with the stigma of ageing was essential for successful ageing. Notably, the report identifies “the experience of ageing can bring many challenges, yet these challenges are poorly understood in our communities”.
What are they supposed to do? The best real-life attempt to quantify what ageing entails is Harvard University’s Study of Human Development, which has charted the lives of 724 individuals over the phenomenal quantity of 60 years. Interestingly, the study’s former director, Professor George Vaillant, identified a new milestone for late-life development –what he termed Keeper of the Meaning, which was “conservation and preservation of the collective products of mankind”. This fundamentally translates to the older person finding an identity by means of maintaining and disseminating wisdom – with roles in mentorship and teaching.
Older adults currently enjoy longer lifespans, better medical care, and superior functioning than ever before. What they still do not have – at least, not most of them – is a sense of purpose regarding what they are supposed to be doing. Professor Vaillant considers that the answer to this is education – or anything involving the next generation. With regards to passing on wisdom to the next generation, we are fortunate that there are numerous opportunities for same. AIME (The Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience) was founded in 2005 with just 25 student/mentor pairs, and now supports over 4,800 students. MentorSelector, an innovative mentor brokering service, provides an online mechanism for mentoring that is elderly-friendly. Volunteering.nsw.gov.au estimates that over 6 million Australians volunteer this year.
The challenge of ageing is therefore one with a solution, that is readily available. We must help our parents, our colleagues, and ourselves to see old age as a stage of opportunity. When one gets to not only enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of labour, but also to work with the next generation to ensure that lessons are not lost. This is how to destroy the stigma of ageing.
To do so is to give meaning and rationale to people who are otherwise lost and alone. And to teach them that there is no reason to fear.