‘Grumpy old man syndrome could be a sign of something more serious’

Jul 12, 2020
Being a grumpy old man isn't a normal part of ageing, it's a sign of mental health illness. Source: Getty

It’s important to look after your mental health as you age, but particularly in later life. As people get older, they’re likely to have declining physical health, suffer more losses as friends and relatives pass away, and increasing worries about developing conditions such as dementia.

Interestingly though, these common challenges have led to unhelpful myths about older people’s mental wellbeing. A common myth is that it’s normal for older people to be grumpy, down or nervy. For example, the old cranky man who tells off people in the supermarket, or the worried and nervy old lady who avoids going new places or doing new things as it’s too overwhelming, or the lonely older neighbour who never seems to go out or have family or friends visit.

These stereotypes can make ageing a pretty gloomy prospect. But, scientific research actually paints a different picture. In fact, research from around the world shows that older people (on average) experience better mental health.

This occurs despite age-related challenges such as health issues or living alone. It’s an intriguing concept – that despite an increasing number of stressors, people seem to cope better. Although we aren’t quite sure why this occurs, the research suggests that it’s partly due to changes in the way people deal with difficulties as they age that actually helps them to maintain more positive emotions.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone maintains good mental health later in life, it’s just that people are more likely to. In fact, in Australia one in 20 older adults living in the community suffer from depression or anxiety.

People may begin to withdraw from others, get easily irritated or lose interest in things they used to enjoy. They can also experience flatness, lack of motivation, fatigue, significant worry or concerns about multiple things. And they can be grumpy, lonely or nervy.

Unfortunately, because of the ageing stereotypes that assume that these features are normal parts of ageing, these people often don’t get the help they need. The signs are dismissed and ignored by individuals, their family, friends, neighbours and medical professionals too. However, untreated symptoms aren’t only unpleasant but also increase risk for worsening cognition, physical and mental health.

When low mood and anxiety continue, it’s linked to an increased risk of developing dementia, physical illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, and is associated with more severe symptoms of mental illness, including suicide.

The good news is that we know that we can help older people to have good mental health. Even for people who might have suffered with worry or low mood for a long time. There are psychological strategies that can help people learn to change the way they think and behave that have powerful and lasting impacts on mood and wellbeing.

Currently, Macquarie University also has remote options available that allow people to receive treatment from a psychologist for free as part of a clinical trial. Treatment is delivered via the internet, telephone, video conference or face-to-face, depending on where a person lives.

Help is available by talking to your general practitioner or contacting mental health organisation Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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