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Bereaved older people’s mental health needs ignored, says report

They are less likely to be referred for counselling/support than working age adults

Caroline White

Friday, 27 April 2018

The mental health needs of bereaved older people are being ignored, despite the fact that they are up to four times more likely to become depressed than older people who haven’t lost a partner, finds a new report* published by older people’s charity Independent Age.

And they are more likely to have worse mental health as a result of their bereavement than working age adults, yet they are less likely to be referred for bereavement support than people who are younger, the findings show.

Every year in England, 192,000 older people are newly bereaved. More than 106,000 of them will become depressed—a figure that is projected to increase to over 161,000 by 2039.

There is evidence that older people benefit more than working age adults from psychological therapies, but they are less likely to be referred for them. In fact, fewer than one in five people aged 65 and over have received bereavement counselling.

The report, which looked at the impact of the death of a partner on older people, and the importance of talking about the bereavement and receiving support, found that many older people and their families see the death of a partner as ‘just how life goes’, rather than as a traumatic event for which the surviving partner will need help to cope.

This means that many older people can find it much more difficult to get support such as counselling or therapy, says the report. Often they are not even told that it’s an option, and may feel less deserving of it. They tend to rely heavily on family and friends, which means those without family and friends may not get any support at all, the report points out.

Older people who felt their partner didn’t have a ‘good death’ find it more difficult to cope with their grief, the report shows.

An older person whose partner has died is more likely to die in the three months following their partner’s death than someone who hasn’t been bereaved, while people with complicated grief are twice as likely to take their own lives than those not experiencing complicated grief.

Complicated grief is twice as common for older people than for bereaved working age adults, says the report.

Independent Age is calling for one organisation that regularly comes into contact with bereaved older people—funeral directors, for example—to be responsible for providing information about services and support following the death of a partner or close family member.

The charity wants every older person who loses a partner to know what support options are available and to be able to access the type of support they feel most comfortable with.

Janet Morrison, chief executive of Independent Age, said: “The death of a partner in older age can be a devastating life event, with emotional, financial and practical impacts for the bereaved person.

“Bereavement in older age can lead to loneliness and an increased likelihood of depression, and it is appalling that older bereaved people aren’t being offered the support and access to services that could make a huge difference to their wellbeing.”

She added: “There needs to be a consistent approach to offering bereavement support across the country, so older people who need them can access services that can help them deal with death in their own way.”

More work needs to be done to remove the stigma from talking about death and bereavement, says the charity.

*Good grief: Older people’s experiences of partner bereavement. A report prepared by Independent Age, April 2018.

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