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Depression and older men – suffering in silence

A fifth of men over the age of 65 live with depression, yet too few seek help, risking their health in the process. Retiresavvy investigates 
Men are less likely to seek help for mental health issues than womenMore than feeling down, depression is a medical condition that can be debilitating to those who suffer from it, and can have a severe impact on the lives of the families and friends of suffers.

According to charity Age UK, 28% of women and 22% of men over the age of 65 live with depression, but men are less likely to seek help for mental health issues than women.

Older people are more susceptible to the risk of depression as a result of the major lifestyle changes that often occur around retirement age and later.

Tom Gentry, Health & Care Policy Adviser at Age UK, says: “Risk factors associated with depression tend to bunch up when you get older, such as not working, bereavement and health conditions. There is a well-established and very strong link between physical and mental health conditions and changes in mobility.”

What can cause depression 

Sudden changes in your life or circumstances can be disorienting and make you feel ‘down’. Often this is just a temporary phase and many people bounce back after a few days, but there is also the risk that such events can act as a trigger for depression. 

For older people, major life changes can include: 

  • Changes to your daily routine – the sudden shift from working to being retired and the loss of purpose and social interaction that your job provided 
  • Health problems – becoming less independent, losing physical mobility, and facing your own mortality
  • Social isolation and loneliness – losing friends or family, moving into residential care or becoming isolated at home through illness and being unable to lead a social life 
  • Bereavement – the loss of your partner or loved ones 
  • Worries – concerns about money or the future 

“Changes in physical activity can tend to hit men more harshly than women – frailty, for example,” says Tom. He adds that many men have more physically active social lives – such as playing sports and going out in groups – while many widowed men are at risk, as in addition to the loss of their partner, they are often simply unprepared for the stresses of looking after themselves. 

“Bereavement and the resulting changes in living standards can be a risk – some men are more looked after than others from a domestic point of view, and taking on those responsibilities can have an impact,” Tom says.

What to look out for 

The symptoms of depression can be varied, but it is a good idea to seek help if you or a loved one experience the following for any extended period of time: 

  • Feeling tired most of the time and/or sleeping badly 
  • Appetite and weight issues – either a loss of appetite or eating more than usual, or sudden weight loss or gain 
  • Feeling apathetic and not taking pleasure from things you normally enjoy
  • Wanting to be alone – cutting yourself off from family and friends, avoiding social activities and not wanting to leave the house
  • Feelings of emptiness, anxiety and lack of concentration, loss of confidence, low self-esteem or suicidal thoughts 

“Displaying symptoms indicates that a GP or mental health professional should carry out a test for depression,” says Tom. 

The symptoms of depression can also be ‘masked’ by symptoms of other illnesses – tiredness, weight loss, problems sleeping and aches and pains are common ailments among older people – or too easily dismissed as ‘just the signs of ageing’. Men are more likely to focus on physical symptoms, rather than feelings, meaning health professionals can overlook underlying mental issues. 

The Royal College of Psychiatrists says that men are more likely to display anger issues as a symptom of depression - irritability, aggression and sudden lashing out, as well as an increased loss of control and greater risk-taking. They are also more likely to ‘self medicate’ – turning to alcohol or drugs to cope – and around three times more likely to commit suicide than women. 

Finding help 

The risk is that many older people may not ask for help through not wanting to be seen as being a burden, while others may dismiss symptoms as ‘just signs of being old’. 

“The grumpy old man stereotype could be a sign of an underlying problem,” says Tom. “If someone has not been out of their house for a week, reach out to them – too many people accept that as part of ageing. My challenge to everyone is to raise expectations of what life can be while people age.”

If you think you may have – or be at risk of – depression, there are some relatively simple steps you can take that may help. It often doesn’t come easy to men, but talking about your concerns with a friend or a professional can be a huge help. For more information about depression and sources of support, see Age UK and Mind, the mental health charity. 

For older men, getting out of the house and keeping mentally, physically and socially active is key. This can mean meeting up in a social environment, such as the traditional male pursuits of the allotment, social clubs or the pub, but also newer community organisations such as Men in Sheds that have a more male-friendly environment than many traditional older-people’s services. 

“Services have tended to be geared more to women than men and what’s provided isn’t always suitable or appealing to men,” says Tom. “Things like Men in Sheds are about finding new ways to provide forums for men to get together and meet.”

Back to ‘Staying healthy in retirement 

This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.

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