Older Aussie men are taking their own lives – so what can we do about it?
Young or old, the research shows that every hour of connection with somebody boosts your mental well-being significantly.
Unfortunately, the statistics show that while we probably intend to go and visit our elderly family and friends, it actually doesn’t happen that often. Life “gets in the way”.
So we created #OLDMATE, where we are encouraging 100,000 Australians to take the pledge to spend one hour a month with an elderly person, becoming their “young mate”.
When we first started out in 2011, we were just a bunch of young guys that read about the suicide rate in Australia and thought, “that’s horrible, someone should do something about this”.
Turns out, the best way to change the world is to just get started. At first, we focused on young men – producing different projects and campaigns to tackle mental health and related social issues in Australia.
This initial focus on young men taught us a great deal. It was only years later, when reviewing the data and thinking about our next big project, did we uncover a surprising fact: that suicide continues to be a leading cause of death in older men.
In fact, when it comes to elderly men – men aged 80-plus – it’s the highest cause of death per 100,000 people than in any other demographic in Australia.
It was a shocking revelation. I don’t think many people realise how big a problem mental health is for senior Australians.
I don’t think many people realise how big a problem mental health is for senior Australians.
We found there were a bunch of contributing factors to poor mental health in elderly men, including loss of financial freedom, loss of privilege, a decrease in physical health and mobility, and difficulty transitioning into this next phase of life.
But above all else, the big one that stood out was a lack of connection.
We know that isolation or a lack of interpersonal connection is often the biggest predictor of future issues with depression, anxiety and suicidality.
So with #OLDMATE, we thought – let’s try to tackle this alarming statistic in older men through creating new connections between generations. We launched in October 2017.
So far, the turnout has been promising. We have thousands of volunteers – whom we call young mates – teamed up with old mates, with the big goal to hit 100,000 across the nation.
We’ve also had aged care and home care providers sign up as official partners, who are helping to form these introductions.
The personal stories we hear really make me smile and prove how worthwhile the project is. It’s making a difference in people’s lives. And I think our young mates are beginning to see for themselves the great wisdom, stories and capability of our older generations.
One great anecdote was from a young guy in Brisbane with an elderly European-expat neighbour. He had an aviary on his property and had travelled all over the world. So this young bloke has been going over there and catching up with him and hanging out in his aviary, feeding the birds and hearing the stories of what it was like growing up in Europe over 80 years ago. He loves it.
This young bloke has been going over there and catching up with him and hanging out in his aviary, feeding the birds and hearing the stories of what it was like growing up in Europe over 80 years ago. He loves it.
Taking this pledge has also served as a timely reminder for many young mates to reach out to people they already know.
We encourage young mates to look around in their own circles to see who they can start interacting with straight away.
We’ve heard some great stories of people saying: “I’d been meaning to call grandad, or I should actually talk to that person.”
It might be their relative, their neighbour or someone else they know.
To help along the process, we send out suggestions for things to do, with more than seventy activities to choose from. One is listening to music from two different eras, like Frank Sinatra and Nicki Minaj, and using that as a talking point to open up the conversation on how music has changed and get them chatting.
There are very low effort activities too, like playing chess, going for coffee and watching a movie, and more high strain ideas like going for a bike ride or a walk. We’ve even got a couple of cheeky ones in there, with an Old Mate skydive, but it’s all comes back to that idea of creating a connection for positive mental health outcomes.
On a long drive not long ago I took the chance to ask my grandad what it was like when he was my age, and if mental health was as big an issue back then?
Grandad said it was just as bad then as it is now. But if somebody obviously killed themselves, in his day you would say they “fell off a horse”. Suicide and mental health was just something you did not talk about.
That kind of attitude is not easily changed. It is shifting – and how our generation approaches it now is vastly different. But there’s a great deal more work to do.
I think it’s about helping people to create more connections, to feel human again and to feel as if they matter.
Because they do. And the power of connection never grows old.
If you or anyone you know needs help, get in touch with your local GP or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978.