A new resource providing guidance to aged care workers about what to do when older people feel sad has been released by the Australian Association of Gerontology.

Developed for AAG by Dr Sarah Russell in consultation with registered nurses and support workers, the online resource offers advice on how aged care staff can emotionally support their clients in the best way possible.

“This resource advises aged care workers on how to just sit with someone and help them talk about what it is that’s on their minds,” Dr Russell told Australian Ageing Agenda.

An aged care and mental health advocate and principal researcher at Research Matters, Dr Russell was approached by AAG to develop the tool when it was discovered there was no such resource on the subject aimed specifically at aged care workers. “There was a need for support workers to understand changes in people’s behaviour,” said Dr Russell. “To recognise that people have ups and downs.”

However, Dr Russell is quick to point out that the booklet is not a resource on how to deal with clinical depression. “This is a resource on mood shifts,” she said.

Older people also contributed to the consultation process, during which they expressed diverse views on the emotional support they wanted from aged care workers. While some preferred to keep their feelings to themselves or share with loved ones, others welcomed staff showing an interest in their mental health.

“I want a support worker to notice that I haven’t attended any activities over the past week or so,” said Robert, an aged care home resident. “This requires them having a relationship with me – to take an interest when my behaviour changes.”

However, as Dr Russell said aged care workers are sometimes too busy performing day-to-day tasks to spend quality time with residents . “They told me they wished they had more time to make a cup of tea and sit with them and have a talk,” she said.

Tips and reasons

Included in the eight-page booklet are tips such as:

  • notice changes in mood and behaviour
  • have an informal chat
  • listen
  • check you have understood
  • show understanding and support.

The resource also lists the various reasons why older people might feel down including:

  • isolation from friends, family and their community
  • boredom
  • declining physical health
  • side-effects from medications
  • the death of a life partner.
Dr Sarah Russell

“In practical terms there is nothing you can usually do to fix the problem,” said Dr Russell. “But people benefit so much from talking with someone who is really listening and understanding and validating how they are feeling.”

People like aged care resident Denise. “Having my feelings validated brought a sense of relief,” she said. “It was helpful to be able to talk about my husband and share my memories of him.” 

Active listening is the most helpful thing an aged care worker can do, Dr Russell told AAA. It is more than just nodding along politely, but really engaging, she said. “When you actually take an interest in someone’s life and allow them to talk about their life, it makes older people feel so much more valued.”

While the resource can be accessed online, AAG will consider requests to provide printed copies of the brochure to individuals and organisations. Email [email protected]

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  1. While I appreciate that a resource for aged care workers is a useful tool, I wonder how one can set aside time ‘to just sit with someone and help them talk about what it is that’s on their minds’. I’ve been a direct care worker and while there were opportunities to explore feelings about situations or talk about concerns, I also just wanted to get on with the tasks and move on to the next client or just squeeze time to do some uni reading or rush to collect child, etc.

    The resource for mood shifts is certainly useful but these are huge expectations on a workforce who don’t get paid well enough to add more stuff to their workload. As an EAP Counsellor (among my other spaces), I’ve spoken with aged care workers who feel intense guilt about leaving a client who’s unwell or doesn’t have significant others in their lives. One such worker told me she checks in with clients outside assigned work periods, while at the same time struggling with her own crises.

    Might the aged care sector start to recognise that Counsellors could be part of the care workforce to support older adults, whether at home or in residential care? I have heard interest expressed by Counsellors to work in this space but the barriers are many.

    PACFA hosts the Older People Special Interest Group where, among a range of goals, the intent is to raise the profile of Counsellors in aged care.

  2. I agree with Caroline’s comments. I am an Aged care counsellor who works with clients both in facilities and in their own homes. My passion of for facilities to recognise the need to employ counsellors for even two days a week to be able to spend quality time using therapeutic methods to address the issues of loneliness, anxiety, depression, loss and grief.
    The under-resourced and badly paid staff do not have time – although they might genuinely have the passion – to spend extra time listening to residents. An ‘on call’ counsellor would not only be able to cover all those issues but might also be able to assist staff who are going through their own issues and families of residents who are coming to terms with the frailty of their family members.
    It is great to see that Dr Sarah Russell has recognised the urgency of identifying some-one who has a mood change and may need help. Now we need to recognise that trained professional are the ones who can offer that help while staff do what they need to do.

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