A significant number of older adults may be experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. But there are some simple steps that individuals can take to promote their mental wellbeing.
It is difficult to determine the precise number of older adults in the UK who are affected by mental health issues, as mental health problems can be difficult to identify and may not always be reported or diagnosed.
However, around 22% of men and 28% of women over the age of 65 experience depression or anxiety. This figure may be higher among older adults who are living in institutional care settings, such as nursing homes.
Five signs that elderly people might be struggling with poor mental health
There are many potential reasons why older adults in the UK may experience mental health problems. Some of the most common factors that can contribute to mental health issues in older adults include:
- Physical health problems: Chronic physical health problems or disabilities can lead to mental health problems, as they can cause pain, discomfort, and a sense of loss of control.
- Social isolation: Older adults may experience social isolation due to the loss of loved ones, reduced mobility, or other factors. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression.
- Loss and grief: The loss of loved ones and other life changes, such as retirement or moving to a new location, can be difficult for older adults and can lead to grief and depression.
- Stress: Older adults may experience stress due to financial concerns, caregiving responsibilities, or other challenges.
- Dementia: Dementia is a common mental health problem among older adults, and it can cause a range of cognitive and behavioural symptoms.
Maintaining your mental health
However, there are steps that elderly individuals can take to promote their mental well-being.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Stay connected with loved ones: Social connections are important for mental health at any age. Elderly individuals should make an effort to stay in touch with friends and family, whether through in-person visits, phone calls, or video chats.
- Engage in activities that bring joy: It’s important to find activities that bring happiness and purpose, whether that’s gardening, reading, volunteering, or spending time with pets.
- Seek professional help if needed: It’s okay to seek help from a mental health professional if feelings of sadness, loneliness, or other mental health concerns persist. A therapist or counsellor can provide support and coping strategies to help manage difficult emotions.
- Take care of physical health: Physical health and mental health are closely linked. Elderly individuals should make sure to get regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, and get enough sleep to promote overall well-being.
- Get outside: Spending time outdoors, even in the winter months, can help improve mood and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Spending time in areas with abundant green space and low air pollution levels has been shown to have a positive impact on both physical and mental wellbeing. Being in green spaces with clean air can also improve cardiovascular health, boost the immune system, and even aid in recovery from illnesses or injuries. Exposure to nature can also improve cognitive function, boost creativity, and may even help with depression and anxiety.
By taking care of their mental health, elderly individuals can improve their quality of life and enjoy their golden years to the fullest. It’s important to remember that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength and self-care.
Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a neurophysiologist, comments: “The festive cheer has worn off, it’s cold and wet outside, and the short days are relentlessly cold and dark. This can be a perfect storm for depression, especially in older people for whom health problems and lack of mobility often mean getting out and about at this time of year is much harder. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation – even depression.
“Connection is so important during this time as is getting as much natural daylight as possible, especially first thing in the morning. If you know of someone who might be struggling on this day, please reach out and offer your support and company. Even a smile and a brief chat can go a long way to raising someone’s spirits if they are feeling down and it is important that we make time to do it.”
Innovative robotic cup could empower older adults to stay hydrated
A one-of-a-kind robotic cup designed to help people living with cerebral palsy stay hydrated could also be a game-changer for older adults suffering from mobility impairments.
The aptly named RoboCup enables people with limited upper body mobility to stay hydrated without relying on a caregiver for help.
The battery-powered device, which can be mounted on a user’s wheelchair and customised to suit their mobility needs, is activated either by a button or a proximity sensor that brings a straw directly to their mouth.
The user can then take a drink, and once they have finished the straw automatically withdraws.
The cup is the brainchild of engineering students Thomas Kutcher and Rafe Neathery, who came up with the innovative idea after Rice University’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) in Houston, Texas, in the United States, was approached by spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy patient Gary Lynn for help creating an assistive drinking device.
The result is RoboCup, which Thomas and Rafe hope will offer users greater freedom as they won’t need to rely on a caregiver whenever they need a drink.
To this end, the undergraduates have generously made their design available for free to anyone with access to a 3D printer to assemble their own drinking device by downloading instructions from RoboCup’s OEDK website.
Having made it possible for those living with cerebral palsy to drink water autonomously, Thomas and Rafe are now looking at the cup’s wider application – and believe it could prove to be a life-changing piece of technology for those with age-related eating and drinking problems caused by muscle weakness, pain, disease, and neurological conditions that can seriously affect mobility.
Thomas told AgeTech World: “While our client who had the idea for this device has cerebral palsy, the potential use cases spread far and wide. Rafe and I wanted our design to be as generalisable as possible.
“The device is catered to anyone with impaired mobility in a wheelchair, to the extent that they can either push a button or hold their finger in front of a motion sensor, and sip water from a straw.
“Once the device is set up it is very intuitive. It just needs to be set up in a manner where the straw rotates directly to a comfortable location for the user, and the sensor should be placed in a position where the user is able to trigger it.
“Once that criteria is met it should be very easy for the user.”
Dehydration is dangerous for anyone of any age. But older people are at a greater risk than any other age group.
This is because as people age their bodies don’t demand the same levels of liquid as they did in their younger years. This in turn changes a person’s sense of thirst.
However, the body still needs fluids to function, whether that be helping lubricate joints, regulating body temperature, pumping blood to the muscles, or ensuring the kidneys and urinary tract continue to function properly.
According to the British Nutrition Foundation, dehydration is not only a common cause of hospital admissions in older people but is associated with increased mortality.
For example, a two-fold increase in the mortality of stroke patients has been reported.
Even mild dehydration can be dangerous, affecting tiredness levels and mental performance, potentially leading to low blood pressure, dizziness, weakness, and an increased risk of falls.
In older people, dehydration is often associated with dementia, poorly controlled diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke.
Certain medications can also cause dehydration.
The obvious way to prevent a lack of fluids is to drink more. But this can be easier said than done if you have impaired physical or mental abilities that may confine you to a bed or a wheelchair.
There are several hydration aids on the market aimed at older adults and those with cognitive impairments such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, from water sweets to sports-type bottles and wearable devices that can monitor fluid intake.
But Thomas and Rafe believe RoboCup is in a class of its own.
Rafe said: “RoboCup is primarily focused on allowing those with limited mobility to find increased autonomy in their day-to-day lives. The primary alternative to something like RoboCup would be a water bottle with a long adjustable straw that can be positioned near the user’s mouth.
“However, the issue with these products is that they intrude on the user’s headspace, and they tend to leak water down their shirt. RoboCup gives people autonomy to have hydration when they want it, and to have control over their own personal space.”
Whilst currently designed for use with a wheelchair, Rafe and Thomas say the RoboCup could be adapted for use in other situations, such as a hospital or care home environment, where a patient is confined to bed.
Thomas and Rafe, who are both 21 and in their final year at Rice University studying bioengineering and mechanical engineering respectively, are currently busy with senior design projects in other fields.
But Thomas said: “As far as assistive devices go our focus is still on RoboCup. As there is such a wide range of potential users, we’re still looking for and exploring ideas to make RoboCup more customisable.
“The main ones are investigating different sensors and locations to fit an individual’s personal ability, adjusting the design to accommodate more viscous fluids, or making it simpler for people to adjust the timing of the motion.”
Making the device as accessible as possible has meant simplifying it. During its development, the duo removed some of the more complicated or expensive parts and found alternatives for custom pieces that required special equipment to be made.
Rafe explained: “It was challenging walking that thin line between simplifying the device and sacrificing functionality or robustness. We wanted to keep it working well while still making it simpler and cheaper.
“Balancing all these considerations was really tricky, but we did get to a point where it’s now a lot easier to 3D print and assemble the device using simple, readily accessible tools.”
The pair worked closely with Gary Lynn during the development stage to optimise the design, which went through several iterations. An initial prototype featured a camelback but was scrapped for the current mounted cup-and-straw version.
Both Gary and his mother Andrea Lynn have expressed their hope that the project will bring attention to the struggles of people living with disabilities who can often strain with something as seemingly easy as drinking water.
Gary has said of Thomas and Rafe’s design: “This cup will give independence to people with limited mobility in their arms. Getting to do this little task by themselves will enhance the confidence of the person using the device.”
To help spread the word about RoboCup, Rafe and Thomas entered the device in the World Cerebral Palsy Day Remarkable Designa-thon competition intended to promote “ideas for a new product or service that could change lives” for people in the cerebral palsy community.
Sadly, RoboCup didn’t win. The prize went to a woman with cerebral palsy who developed an idea for an app that knows who she is, and where she is, and contains a list of her contacts for emergencies, allowing those with speech challenges to effectively communicate their needs to anyone.
Rafe said: “I’m glad the money is going to someone with cerebral palsy who has an important need to be met.”
That hasn’t stopped Rafe and Thomas from getting the word out about RoboCup.
But why did they decide to make their invention freely available rather than taking the entrepreneurial route?
Thomas said their goal had always been to bring it to as many people as possible, especially as they had neither the time nor the investment to commercialise it.
“Helping other people make their own is best,” he commented. “We have open-sourced the part files and code online, and everything else is available to buy from other vendors. After everything is printed, all it takes is a screwdriver and less than an hour to assemble Robocup – the instructions are also online with a few dozen pictures.
“The idea behind all of this effort is to enable others to make Robocup themselves, regardless of access to tools or machinery.
“The low cost, small size, and wide capabilities of a desktop 3D printer are bringing it into more and more households, as well as schools, labs, and maker spaces. There are also several online services that can print and ship 3D-printed parts.”
He added: “We hope the manufacturing process doesn’t prove too burdensome, as Rafe and I worked hard to make it as simple as possible. We do believe that the fully idealised version of this device is purchasable off the shelf to make it as easy as possible for the consumer.”
With graduation looming, Thomas and Rafe admit they are keen to move on to future endeavours. Rafe is going to work for SpaceX post-graduation and Thomas is planning to pursue a PhD in Neural Engineering.
That doesn’t mean if the RoboCup takes off, it might not become a commercial enterprise.
Thomas said: “Like I said before, Rafe and I have wanted to get the word out about RoboCup and move on, as we are graduating. We were potentially hoping that another organisation could take the reins on the RoboCup, or our open-source website could become popular.
“We mostly just wanted to get our work out there through open sourcing, but Rafe and I have more things to discuss in terms of making sure the RoboCup is successful, reaching as many people as possible.
“I personally am somewhat interested in turning it into a commercial enterprise if there is a clear path there, but I need to do more research.”
8,000 steps a day helps to prevent premature death
An international study has provided the first scientific proof for how many steps a person needs to take per day to significantly reduce the risk of premature death: 8,000.
Given the average length of a human stride (76 centimetres for men and 67 centimetres for women), taking 8,000 steps is equivalent to walking about 6.4 kilometres a day.
Researchers have also shown that the pace at which people walk has additional benefits, and that it is better to walk fast than slow.
To reduce the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, most of the benefits are seen at around 7,000 steps, the University of Granada-led research found.
The research was carried out by researchers from the Netherlands (Radboud University Medical Center), Spain (Universities of Granada and Castilla-La Mancha) and the United States (Iowa State University).
“Traditionally, many people thought that you had to reach about 10,000 steps a day to obtain health benefits – an idea that came out of Japan in the 1960s but had no basis in science,” said lead author of the study, Francisco B. Ortega, a professor at the UGR’s Department of Physical Education and Sports.
No scientific basis
The first pedometer marketed to the general public was the ‘10,000 steps meter’ (a literal translation), but the figure had no scientific basis.
“We’ve shown for the first time that the more steps you take, the better, and that there is no excessive number of steps that has been proven to be harmful to health,” says Ortega.
The researchers conducted a systematic literature review and meta-analysis of data from 12 international studies involving more than 110,000 participants.
The results of this study are in line with other recent studies, which show that health benefits are obtained at less than 10,000 steps.
“What makes our study different is that, for the first time, we set clear step targets,” said Esmée Bakker, currently a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Granada and one of the lead authors of the study.
“In this study, we show that measurable benefits can be obtained with small increases in the number of steps per day, and that for people with low levels of physical activity, every additional 500 steps improves their health.
“This is good news because not everyone can walk almost 9,000 steps a day, at least not at first, so you can set small, reachable goals and gradually make progress and increase the number of steps per day.”
The study revealed no difference between men and women. It also found that faster walking is associated with a reduced risk of mortality, regardless of the total number of steps per day.
Additionally, according to Bakker, “it doesn’t matter how you count your steps, whether you wear a smartwatch, a wrist-based activity tracker or a smartphone in your pocket: the step targets are the same”.
Physical activity recommendations
So, should people stop walking when they reach around nine thousand steps?
“Absolutely not”, insists Ortega. “More steps are never bad. Our study showed that even as many as 16,000 steps a day does not pose a risk.
“On the contrary, there are additional benefits compared to walking 7,000-9,000 steps a day, but the differences in risk reduction are small.
“Furthermore, the step target should be age appropriate, with younger people being able to set a higher target than older people.
It is also important to note that our study only looked at the effect on the risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease.
There are other studies and a large body of scientific evidence that show that doing moderate and even vigorous physical activity is associated with many health benefits, including improvements in sleep quality and mental health, among many others.
“Our study gives people clear and easily measurable goals,” Bakker added. “The (inter)national physical activity recommendations advise adults to get 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
“But most people don’t know what exercises count as moderate intensity, making it difficult to verify their compliance with this exercise standard.
“Counting steps is much simpler, especially since most people have a smartphone or smartwatch these days.
“Herein lies the importance of our study: to provide simple and concrete targets for the number of daily steps that people can easily measure with their phones and smartwatches or wristbands, and thereby contribute to people’s health.”
The online club helping inspire a more joyful retirement
The founder of an online activity club providing inspiration for a happier and more fulfilling retirement has told Agetech World she believes a link-up with the NHS could have “huge benefits” for both older people and the UK’s publicly funded healthcare system.
Hannah Thomson was inspired by her late grandmother to launch The Joy Club in December 2020 to help tackle loneliness in retirement and empower older people to make the most of their later years by leading a more physically active and intellectually stimulating life.
The online platform that offers members the chance to connect with others who share their interests, access activities, and take part in expert-led live-streamed classes and talks, already collaborates with several private partners, including retirement villages, and is looking at the potential of working with two leading financial institutions.
But entrepreneur Ms Thomson has told the latest Agetech World podcast that a tie-in between The Joy Club and the NHS could be mutually beneficial.
Click here to listen to the latest Agetech World podcast
Ms Thomson said: “We would love to work with the NHS. At the moment we have our partnerships with the private sector, so we started off focusing on retirement living, particularly integrated retirement communities, and we work with the likes of Audley Villages, BUPA’s retirement village in Richmond Villages, and Anchor – the largest provider of retirement housing in the UK – so we work with amazing providers who really are at the forefront of delivering a health and wellness package that will support prolonged independence of their homeowners.
“Integrated retirement communities are very much focused on delivering a new model to enable people to age in place in a way that extends life expectancy, but importantly a healthy life expectancy as well, having good healthy later years.
“So that model works really nicely in the private sector, and we think as well it would work really well for the NHS.
“When we look at the stats, loneliness is an interesting way to frame this because I think I am very mindful of contributing to a positive dialogue around healthy ageing.
“I think sometimes loneliness as an issue amongst people in later life can perpetuate negative stereotypes, so I’m very careful when I’m talking about this.
“But it is true to say, that the research would suggest, that a third of people in later life are lonely and that if you are lonely that costs the NHS an extra £12k per person over the 15 years of later life.
“There are huge mental health issues around loneliness, as well as physical health issues. It is twice as harmful as obesity, it is just as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, so there are lots of reasons from patient well-being to system pressure, to system finance, why the NHS should support people in later life to remain active and connected and joyful through The Joy Club.
“We are starting to have a few conversations around that, and we would love that to happen. We think there would be huge benefits.”
Ms Thomson added: “But I think for us there are also enormous opportunities for us elsewhere in the private sector, and we are starting off some proof-of-concept work with Lloyds Banking Group, for example, and we are doing some work with Standard Life.
“These are organisations that have access to millions of people and are under less funding pressure than the NHS as well.
“So, we would be very excited about the NHS opportunity but we can also see huge opportunities in the private sector, including retirement villages, pensions, banking, and financial services, that enable us to have impact of scale.
“And that is what we are really thinking about; how we get The Joy Club in the hands of millions of people as quickly as possible to have that positive impact.”
The inspiration for The Joy Club dates back to 2015 when Ms Thomson witnessed the deterioration of her ‘Granny Jean,’ following a dementia diagnosis.
She sadly passed away just before the first UK Covid lockdown in March 2020. Ms Thomson said it was this experience combined with voluntary work she had been doing with Age UK, that made her realise that as a nation we are not doing enough to support people in later life.
She said that all too often we only treat age-related illness once it has taken hold when instead we should be keeping people well for as long as possible.
Ms Thomson spent months speaking to experts and listening to the concerns of older people before coming up with her idea for the online-based The Joy Club.
Currently only operating in the UK, she acknowledged it’s a concept that can be easily rolled out to other countries, with a US platform likely in the near future.
She said: “For us the UK, the home market, is our focus at the moment, and we have lots of exciting plans in place to extend our presence in the integrated retirement community sector and also then move into other sectors like finance and pensions and banking, so that’s our focus in the short term.
“But certainly, in the medium term, we would be looking to take this elsewhere. The US is likely to be our second market, but ultimately it is our ambition to build the largest and most joyful community of retirees globally.”
She added: “We are continuously involved in the cycle of experimentation, testing, iteration, and as I’ve mentioned, audio is something that we have just launched, and that is going tremendously well, so we will be looking to evolve the platform further, very much based on feedback, extend our reach and impact through partnerships, and then there are international expansions, so lots of exciting things in the pipeline.”
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