According to aged care advocates, elderly people living in aged care are excluded from Medicare-funded psychological treatments which are available to the wider community.
It appears that aged care residents have slipped through the cracks because of a loophole Medicare’s rules.
GP mental health treatment plans and associated psychological therapies are provided to Australians under the Better Access Medicare program.
However, this program does not apply to aged care residents because they are deemed to be patients “in the community”, according to the rule.
Because of this they are denied access to public health treatments.
Studies by the National Ageing Research Institute have estimated that one third of older people living in aged care have some of the highest rates of depression and anxiety.
The research found that those living in aged care facilities are two to three times more likely to have mental health conditions than older people living in at home or in the general community.
Audits by Sydney and Deakin universities have found that less than 2 per cent of residents who suffer from depression have received psychological treatments.
Mental Health Stigma and Ageing
Mental illness and their symptoms can often go unnoticed in older people because they are often considered as symptoms that are inevitable as people age. However this is simply not the case.
Though some elderly people move into aged care homes already having certain mental health issues, others struggle because of certain challenges they experience in moving into care. Some elderly people may have trouble adjusting to a new environment, while others feel a loss of social role and/or sense of identity.
Some residents may develop mental health disorders because of other conditions they have, this includes things such as chronic pain, disabling and terminal medical conditions and progressive loss of brain function.
Australian Psychological Society executive director Professor Lyn Littlefield told the ABC that without a correct diagnosis, chances are people will receive the incorrect medical treatment.
“Often, they’re not given the right medication because there’s no formal assessment,” she said.
“So, you need a psychologist to assess [aged care residents] to work out what type of mental health problem they’ve got and often it’s anxiety or depression, but very frequently it can be mixed in with dementia.”
There are many options for treating mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Though medication is common, many people, including the elderly, have had success with using cognitive behavioural therapy and other therapies that do not require medication.
“If they were receiving [mental health] care, their life would have much higher quality. They’d be functioning at a much higher level. They’d be more connected and able to connect in with other people,” Professor Littlefield says.