A generation gap in support as baby boomers face old age

Many of the elderly suffer from depression and some are silently undiagnosed. Sheena Hastings reports.

BABY Boomers were the first generation to enjoy the concept of being a teenager, and also the first of the last century to enjoy a prolonged period of national prosperity in which they were encouraged to “have it all”, with widespread home ownership, increasing numbers taking holidays abroad and enjoying the burgeoning consumer economy.

That group of post-war babies are now approaching older age, relinquishing the habits of working life and finding themselves with decades still to live in which they might stay fit and healthy or become increasingly dependent on 
help and care from those around them. They – and all of us – are mostly in the dark about when we might crumble physically or mentally.

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For many who are retired or 
who are facing retirement soon, the huge questions of how long their health will last, who will care from them and how they finance their care are a colossal and persistent worry.

Coping with the transition from an active working life to retirement can also take a huge emotional toll.

For Christine Cooke from York, the change from being a successful person working full time at York St John University to becoming a single retired person was tough, and she became increasingly depressed.

“About 18 months before I retired I began to feel very anxious about it,” says Christine, who’s now in her 70s. “I was scared about being alone and at home, and worried about who I would be without my job. I became depressed and over time tried everything including talking therapies and medication. I found that I would be all right for a while then it would come back.”

In the end, Christine found the solution for her was to stay busy, keeping a full diary of activities that give a focus to each day. She swims, goes to the gym, sees friends and walks; she also volunteers at a museum and teaches arts and crafts to a mental health support group, feeling her own experience of depression helps to make her sympathetic to the problems of others.

Meeting Christine Cooke in during the making a TV documentary about depression in the elderly has made 50-year-old BBC Yorkshire producer Andrew Knight confront what his own life might be like in 20 or 30 years’ time. “I feel I need to make more connections with people around me in the local community,” he says. “I see lots of people of my parents’ age struggling with the challenges of old age and, while I am happy in my own company, I realise I need to understand my own sense of where I am and what I will need to be in future. The government can’t meet all the needs of everyone’s old age, so it’ll be down to the so-called ‘Big Society’ to help. I really admire how Christine has helped herself and helped others in the process.”

Knight’s programme, which can be seen tonight, reveals that as many as a quarter of all elderly people could be suffering from anxiety or depression, but many of those who should be enjoying a worry-free retirement are undiagnosed and suffering in silence.

Even if a sufferer has been diagnosed and received treatment from a mental health team, after retirement they pass into the care of generic services for the elderly, which don’t necessarily offer the same level of care. Depression in the elderly is not seen as a priority, says the experts.

The documentary examines new work being carried out by the University of York. The biggest study ever carried out into mental health in the elderly, this £2.5m work will take five years. Led by Professor Simon Gilbody, it’s hoped the research will find out what strategies really work in helping older people and that its results will feed into future public policy. Therapies being trialled include counselling initiated face-to-face then continued over 20 sessions on the phone. Results so far are positive.

It has already been found – and this may be surprising to many – that people in the 55-65 age group are twice as likely to suffer depression than those beyond retirement age. The increase in likelihood of depression may, say researchers and clinicians, be linked to the realisation, as retirement approaches, that the dreamed-of happy phase of carefree travel and a busy social life may not become a reality 
due to financial restrictions and health worries.

The growing elderly population and its health needs is a thorny issue which no political party has grasped properly. The time for lateral thinking is now.

Inside Out is on BBC1 tonight at 7.30pm.