Targeted programs provide mental health boost to older Victorians

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Above (L to R): Dr Terence Chong, Tanya Cottrell, Grace Billing, Stephanie Perin, Julia McCurry, from SVHM’s Healthy Ageing Service team

A targeted mental health and wellbeing program is providing essential skills to older adults who were identified by the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health Service as ‘slipping through the cracks.’

St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne’s (SVHM) Healthy Ageing Service developed the Wellbeing Skills Group program to care for older Victorians with mild to moderate mental health needs.

Launched last year, the program is run at various community centres and aged care facilities across Melbourne and is comprised of six sessions that aim to empower older Australians to improve their mental health and wellbeing.

The program educates them with information and advice to improve sleep quality, and equips them with mindfulness, relaxation and self-compassion skills, based on psychological strategies. It offers them a personalised toolkit to draw on during challenging times.

The Healthy Ageing Service has evolved in response to an increasing demand from a group that forms part of Australia’s ‘missing middle’. The ‘missing middle’ were identified as people who need more than primary mental healthcare, but do not meet the criteria to receive tertiary level hospital mental health services.

Currently only about 50 per cent of Victorians aged over 65 requiring mental health services can access specialist care. 

“Older adults often suffer in silence. They don’t tend to seek help or talk about mental health, and battle dual stigmas attached to mental health and ageism, which we have labelled ‘double discrimination’,” said Dr Terence Chong, a psychiatrist at SVHM’s Healthy Ageing Service.

“This is a group with significant needs and through targeted programming and our person-centred model-of-care, we have the ability to do a lot more early intervention and prevention work,” said Dr Chong. 

Social isolation has become a big issue for a lot of older Australians. During the pandemic, many struggled to maintain their connections, which has had a significant impact on mental wellbeing. The move into aged care is another key trigger in deteriorating mental health.

“Many of the people we see in our skills group sessions tell us that self-compassion just doesn’t come naturally to them,” said Grace Billing, Team Leader at SVHM’s Healthy Ageing Service.

“Participants in the program have said they never considered self-compassion as a priority, and that it was a surprise learning. Through the group they have discovered the importance and value of making time for themselves and prioritising their mental wellbeing.”

Older adults are confronted with a number of transitional experiences, highlighting the value in preparing them with much-needed skills to help them cope and manage their mental wellness over these periods.

“In ageing, people experience a lot of loss – loss of loved ones, loss of their work identity, losses of function that may come with illness, and then there is a very big one – their loss of independence,” said Ms Billing.

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Above: Course participants from the Wellbeing Skills Group program

Support with transitioning to aged care

A spin-off program has been developed based on the success of the Wellbeing Skills Group program. Adjusting to Aged Care is a new three-week program that has been structured to assist people who may be struggling with transitioning into aged care.

“It’s a huge change and we have seen how older adults who are fiercely independent struggle with it,” said Ms Billing.

“Moving from a house they have looked after for years, to a room that is no bigger than most people’s bedrooms, and suddenly being told what they can do, when they can do it and what to eat, can be quite deflating for some. It strips away their sense of independence and that can have damaging impact on them if it is not addressed carefully, or they are feel unprepared to tackle the mental hurdles ahead.”

The Adjusting to Aged Care program was launched in June and is being run at aged care facilities across the Eastern Melbourne Primary Health Network catchment area. 

  • St Vincent’s Healthy Ageing Service is supported by Eastern Melbourne Primary Health Network.