Psychosocial Approaches to Mental Health Challenges of Late Life

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The target population for this project is seniors at risk of, or suffering from, mental health problems.

Mental health problems in late life usually occur in the context of medical illness, disability and psychosocial impoverishment. There are many non-biomedical factors that can affect mental health, and therefore must be taken into account when identifying or addressing seniors’ mental health problems (which encompass mental disorders). Seniors are especially vulnerable to mental health problems (1) at critical transitions (e.g., widow-hood, disablement; institutionalization, caring for a spouse with a dementia); (2) when they are socially or emotionally isolated (which can result from critical transitions).

Relatively little is documented, from a seniors’ perspective, about how seniors successfully cope with critical transitions, or what is helpful at these times. There is however evidence that psychosocial (i.e. non-biomedical) approaches to mental health problems in late life can be very effective in the prevention, and alleviation of some mental health problems. Never-the-less, psychosocial approaches tend to be under-utilized for a number of reasons: an over-emphasis on the bio-medical model; a narrow definition of mental health/problems; lack of recognition of the many non-medical/psychiatric needs of seniors, through health promotion, prevention or psychosocial intervention, and a focus on physical care and tasks rather than the relational and social needs of seniors.

The goal of this project is to develop the capacity of communities across Canada, through a comprehensive, integrated cross-sectoral approach, to use psychosocial approaches to promote seniors’ mental health, and to prevent and/or address mental health problems. In order to meet this goal the project intends to: (1) find out from seniors how they successfully cope with critical transitions; (2) find out from seniors key elements in programs and services that are helpful to them; (3) identify promising psychosocial approaches and models that promote seniors’ mental health or prevent or address mental health problems; (4) develop a mental health impact model with which to assess the effect of policies and programs on seniors’ mental health; (5) develop useful community resources based on the finding and experiences of this project.

In order to accomplish the project objectives a network of seniors’ organizations, government and non-government organizations providing services to seniors, provincial psychogeriatric organizations and universities, across five provinces, will be collaborating. These partners will form an Advisory Committee and oversee the execution of two regional (east and west) Joint Planning Workshops. At these workshops seniors and service providers will come together to share their knowledge about successful psychosocial approaches to seniors’ mental health, plan community development strategies, participate in the development of project community resources, and identify sites and participants for seniors’ and community focus groups.

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Seniors and community focus groups will be held in rural and urban, French and English communities. Information about how seniors cope with critical transitions, and what helps, will be gathered from seniors, and the information published in pamphlets for their peers. Information about psychosocial approaches used to promote mental health and to prevent or address mental health problems will be gathered from seniors’ representatives and service providers in the community focus groups, and then compiled in a source book. A mental health impact model will be developed, evaluated and printed for this project.

The resources developed for this project and the local and national networks that will be built, will develop communities’ capacities to use psychosocial approaches, which in turn will enhance the mental health of all Canadian seniors.

Psychosocial: In this context, non-medical approaches (they could be used in direct interventions, policy development, program planning, and/or research).