Assessing the mental health needs of older people

SCIE Guide 3

Published April 2006

About this guide


Mental health and emotional well-being are as important in older age as at any other time of life. Most older people have good mental health, but older people are more likely to experience events that affect emotional well-being, such as bereavement or disability. The Department of Health estimates that perhaps 40 per cent of older people seeing their GP, 50 per cent of older people in general hospitals, and 60 per cent of care home residents, have a mental health problem.

Assessing the mental health needs of older people requires an understanding of the complex interaction between specific medical conditions and social circumstances. To be able to offer effective support, practitioners need to keep up-to-date with the latest research methods and legislation.

This guide, which was first published in 2001, has recently been updated.


The guide describes some of the specific mental health problems that older people may experience. It aims to help practitioners in mainstream, non-specialist settings to develop their knowledge and skills and to think creatively about their work. However, older people's mental health is a vast field and this guide does not attempt to cover it all ( 1 ).

The guide does explore a number of areas though and you will see these listed on the left hand menu. The guide looks at:


The guide is primarily for the use of front-line social work practitioners working with older people in non-specialist settings, who are often the first professional in contact with an older person and their family and friends, and who may have limited knowledge and experience of mental health issues.

The guide will also be valuable and interesting for everyone concerned with good practice in older people's services, including older people themselves, and their families and friends.

If you are an older person

If you are an older person reading this guide, you may be worried about your own health or that of a family member or friend. If you are in contact with health and social care professionals you should have a general assessment of your needs carried out. This might include assessing your health, your ability to manage at home and discussing with you and your family about what help you may need.

Your mental health needs may also be assessed as part of a general assessment. This does not mean that the social worker thinks you are 'going mad' or 'senile', but in older age, bereavement, illness and so on can have affect the way you feel and your ability to cope. If there is a problem, it is important for you and your doctors to understand what that problem is and how it might be approached.

The following organisations produce helpful advice leaflets and fact sheets especially for older people:

External link: Alzheimer's Society (covering all forms of dementia) External link: Help the Aged External link: Age Concern

If you look after an older person

Looking after someone else brings with it particular features which professionals should take into account. You may encounter particular problems, and Section 5 discusses these. As a carer you are entitled to a separate assessment of your own needs, so, if the person you care for is having their needs assessed, make sure that you are also offered your own assessment.

The following organisations provide information on caring and services available:

External link: Carers UK External link: The Princess Royal Trust for Carers External link: Alzheimer's Society

Using this guide

The SCIE website is divided into three columns: the left, middle and right columns. The topics that are covered in this guide are listed in the left hand column. Click on these to access the topics.

Within each topic there are several pages of information, which you can skip to using the navigation in the middle column. All of the links are in blue. The right hand column also has links to either to a PDF of the guide so that you can print it out or to other relevant information. The links may also repeat those listed in the middle column just so you don't miss anything!

Your feedback

SCIE welcomes comments on any aspect of the guide, which will inform future updates. We are also very interested in collecting examples of good practice. Please send us your Feedback.


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