Leading experts in mental health will be called upon to help review mental health services and access for elderly people in the community and residential care from next month.

Aged Care Minister, Ken Wyatt AM announced in March there would be changes to how older people with mental illness can access the support they need, starting with think tanks around the challenges to access and treatment.

“The focus around dementia and Alzheimer’s has meant that we have not talked about the prevalence of depression in older Australians, nor those people who have pre existing mental health conditions,” he told Inside Ageing.

“For some unknown reason, we never seem to talk about it being a prevalent issue after the age of 60.”

“We’ve certainly focused on mental health in young people. We’ve looked at initiatives that have evolved because of public figures talking about their mental health problems. But we don’t think about that in the context of older Australians.”

“There seems to be this silence. What I want to do is dig into the silence to see what the extent of the mental health issues are in senior Australians, look at what research has been done around the rates of depression and certainly consider that in the broader discussion on dementia and Alzheimer’s.”

Next month the Minister will be hosting a roundtable of people with a long history of working within the mental health arena and in aged care to identify the challenges of pre-existing mental health conditions as people age, access to the right services and ensuring treatments are the right treatments.

“I will draw on the people like Patrick McGorry and many of the other people who play a significant role in some of the mental health work that’s been done in this nation, and who have done this nation a great favour by speaking publicly.”

“We don’t shy away from mental health issues like we used to, we just don’t talk about it for older Australians.”

He said the added challenge of the onset of dementia in people with mental illness has not been properly addressed in the past and needs specific solutions.

“It’s something that I’ve not heard talked about in the time I’ve been in politics, until I became the aged care minister,” he said.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics September 2016 figures showed the number of suicides per 100,000 population was highest in men between the ages of 40 and 54 and over the age of 85.

A loss of networks, ailing health, death of a spouse, friends and family combined with reduced mobility and reduced independence were all listed as important factors.

“We do have higher suicide rates in older Australians because of depression and because many people who have been extremely active in their whole life time suddenly reach a point where they are no longer active, because our bodies become frail – there are things we want to be do but can’t – and that would have to be a point of frustration for some individuals,” Minister Wyatt said.

The importance of enabling couples to remain together once one person or both enter residential care is a critical part of tackling the broader issue.

“I once did a talk on how much we are touched and held as children, how much we value the touch of a boyfriend or girlfriend or partner, our hand in marriage to somebody, and then ultimately in dying,” he said.

“We often have family, if they are near, come and see us in our final hours. But in aged care, the number of people I’ve met who never have a visitor… It ranges from 20-35 per cent.”

“I’d hate to be in a situation where, for all of my life I’ve been hugged and held and then I go into a phase of my life where nobody comes to see me.”

“The thing that I despair with aged care is that we are more effective at separating husbands and wives than what the family law court is,” he said.

“Even in my own electorate, I have people who cannot find accommodation in the Shire of Kalamunda so they end up in Rockingham.”

“And if public transport is lousy it makes it very hard for a husband or wife to visit their other half, or a partner to visit their other half, in an aged care facility.“

“I’ve got some people from country towns now located in Perth because there was nothing in their area.”

“So it becomes the way in which we seriously consider the social capital of marriages, and enabling people to really have a journey through ageing that is about the retention of the marriage but at the same time caring for individuals.”

“And that’s one of the challenges as well in the reform process.”

“I just hope we do some better planning. And there are aged care providers doing that, I want to acknowledge the contemporary thinking that’s occurring by aged care providers.”

The Minister said this is not a new budget initiative but rather an alignment of existing resources.