From a listening ear to psychological help – Vlaamse Ouderenraad campaign calls for better mental support in old age


In Belgium, the Vlaamse Ouderenraad (Flemish older people’s Council) has launched the campaign ‘Kopzorgen verdienen zorg’ (headaches deserve care) to promote older people’s mental health and well-being. Although many people experience losses and profound changes in later life, getting old does not mean being unhappy, as argues the Flemish organisation which calls for more appropriate psychological care.

Figures clearly show that mental complaints in older people are not exceptional. 1 in 5 people between 65 and 74 are struggling with their mental well-being, according to the latest Belgian national health survey. For the over-75s, the figure rises to almost 1 in 3.

Far-reaching changes in the older people’s lives have a major impact on the quality of life and which is often overlooked. As if sadness was part of older age and older people just had to live with it.

Barely 5% of people over 75 suffering from depression today receive psychological help, while almost three-quarters receive medication. In care institutions, 8 out of 10 residents take psychopharmaceuticals or sedatives, while only half of the residential care centres call in a psychologist. There is a clear mismatch between the use of medication and psychotherapy. Although specialists agree that psychotherapy can achieve very good results at any age while antidepressants can make the process more difficult.

“Older people with mental health problems hardly get any tailor-made support”, argues Nils Vandenweghe, director of the Vlaamse Ouderenraad.

He sees three main reasons for this:

  • the persisting taboo among the oldest population around psychological problems
  • our perception of ageing: difficult experiences such as losing one’s partner is commonly seen as being part of getting older. This means that we are less likely, for example, to lead people with a difficult mourning process to appropriate care and support.
  • specialised mental health care for over-65s is much less developed than for other groups, unless your psychological problems is raised to a higher level.

As the COVID-19 crisis challenges everyone’s well-being, we all experience how important a listening ear and psychological support is in difficult times. In the recent months, the psychological well-being of older people has been in the spotlight more than ever. The Flemish older people’s organisation believes it is high time for a far-reaching debate on how to improve mental health care in later life. “The needs are high, the figures do not lie and help is currently inadequate, states the campaign website.

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