...with Faye Brookes 10 October 2013

World Mental Health Day 2013 – mental health and older adults

World Mental Health Day takes place annually on 10 October.

It facilitates awareness raising on a global scale, whilst encouraging families and individuals to take the time to consider mental health issues and how mental health may be affecting them. The theme of World Mental Health Day 2013 is mental health and older adults, and thus it will attempt to explore how mental illnesses can affect older people in our community.

This is of poignancy when considering eating disorders in particular, as they are stereotypically suffered by young women. However, as was recently exposed on an episode of Channel 4’s 'Supersize versus Super Skinny', those more advanced in years can develop an eating disorder even if they have never suffered previously. Eating disorders are not discriminatory.

Life events in later years could indeed act as triggers for the onset of eating disorders, for example the harrowing loss of a loved one, having to cope alone for the first time upon family growing up and moving on or having to cope with the lifestyle change of retiring or becoming unemployed. All these factors and more could lead to a loss of perceived ability to cope or a perceived loss of control and hence could escalate into an eating problem or disorder.

Dr Holly Grishkat (an eating disorder specialist working in Philadelphia) supports these notions with the statement that, ‘eating disorders are not always about weight, food or numbers but can be ways of coping with something that the person finds extremely difficult to express, feel or control. They serve a purpose to avoid, numb and cope ... an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with later life stressors, particularly if the person has never learned other, healthier ways of coping’.

Furthermore, there are practical and physical changes that occur as one ages that could facilitate the arising of an eating disorder. For example, one may become unable to cook or feed themselves due to infirmity or physical disability, which poses a risk for the onset of an eating disorder if one does not know how to subsequently cope with these dramatic changes.

Family and friends can help to look out for the signs and symptoms of potential eating disorders in older adults by noting changes in sociability and mood, for example, if they decline invitations to family meals or desire to remain at home more often. Practical signs can also signify problems including whether there is food left over after meals and also whether there is indeed any food in the house at all; if there is, check if there are signs of food having been prepared for previous meals.

As we all know, it is important to be mindful of health – that being physical, mental and social – throughout our lives; however, this becomes an ever-pressing concern as we age. Raising awareness about mental health issues in relation to older people and how they can be supported within our communities will hopefully mitigate the onset of mental disorders in older adults as prevention is key. This is what World Mental Health Day endeavours to achieve, not only for older adults but for everyone.

Faye Brookes

Assistant Psychologist

Faye Brookes is an Assistant Psychologist at Vincent Square Eating Disorder Service