With the Morrison Government set to investigate conditions in aged-care homes, I suggest they focus on the mental health of residents, as the figures are staggering.
With the nation’s nursing homes are currently under the microscope, we have an opportunity to identify the shortcomings and enact real change. It seems that we’ve reached a tipping point, evidenced by the upcoming royal commission announced by Scott Morrison, and the ABC’s two-part investigation debuting this evening on Four Corners.
While we’re still not entirely sure what exactly the RC will be focusing on, the issues are numerous. Our ageing population against staff numbers, national funding, and whether the existing system will be sustainable to carry the future. However, on an individual level, above all that, the silent struggle that many residents face and some are taken by, must be addressed.
According to a 2018 study, 140 Australian nursing-home residents took their own lives in a thirteen-year stretch between 2000 and 2013. Published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, the study is the first to examine the number and patterns of suicide in Australia’s nursing homes.
The researchers discovered that 70% of those who took their own lives were male, 66% had a diagnosis of depression, and nearly 80% were experiencing one or more major life stresses, with health deterioration being a major factor. Around 43% were experiencing isolation and loneliness, and nearly 30% had trouble adjusting to life in a nursing home.
The findings illuminated that the aged-care system isn’t equipped to provide the support for those who enter the system with a pre-existing diagnosis of depression.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there are more than 150,000 older adults living in nursing homes across Australia. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in many countries, but many assume it’s a condition that addles younger people. This is a fallacy, as statistics indicate that adults over 65 years (particularly males) have one of the highest suicide rates of all age groups.
The researchers discovered that they merely scratched the surface in their study, noting:
It’s hard to know how the suicide rate for those living in the community compares to those living in nursing homes, as these statistics are reported differently. But we do know more than 50% of residents in nursing homes suffer from depression compared to just 10-15% of adults of the same age living in the community.
The small proportion of adults over 65 living with depression in the community shows that depression is not a normal part of the ageing process. Depression can be more difficult to diagnose in older adults, as they may themselves believe their symptoms to be a natural reaction to a physical illness or the life changes they are going through.
But the much larger figure of those suffering depression in nursing homes raises some serious questions. This includes whether these people were depressed before they were admitted to care, or became so afterwards.
It’s worth noting that not everybody who is depressed takes their own life. Conversely, not every person admitted to aged care has a negative experience. Clearly, the solution lies in a case-by-case approach. In the face of our generation’s greater awareness of mental health, and the growing number of us that will reach an advanced age, we can hope that this issue is addressed while the topic remains in the public eye.
For our parents, their children, and ours.