Professor Gill Livingston is a professor in psychiatry of older people within the UCL Division of Psychiatry and an honorary consultant psychiatrist at Camden & Islington NHS Foundation Trust.
Can you tell us about your research into the mental health of older people?
I work with many people in our department and more widely to think about the causes of mental health difficulties in older adults and the effect on their families. We then devise interventions to prevent or improve these problems and carry out trials to see if they work.
What do you think are some of the main challenges in understanding and treating mental health disorders among older people? How can research help overcome these challenges?
I think that older people have been regarded as less important and stigmatised and it has been more difficult to attract funding. I think that some of the exciting research and showing that we can make a difference has helped change that and improve things. The prospect of making a difference energises people everywhere.
You have spoken about the concept of ‘successful ageing’. Can you explain more about this?
We are all ageing and may develop health problems at some time in our lives. I think successful ageing is when there is an acceptance that not everything is necessarily curable. Successful agers participate in life and experiences even when they do not have perfect health. This is successful ageing in adversity and can happen at any age.
You lead the Lancet standing committee on dementia prevention, intervention and care. How can we improve quality of life for those with dementia?
Quality of life in dementia is hugely helped by helping someone with dementia lead the life they want by facilitating choices, enjoyable activities and optimal physical health.
You also led the development of the STrAtegies for RelaTives (START) intervention, a programme of coping strategies for dementia carers, which has been hugely successful in many different countries. Can you tell us more about this?
This is a therapy which is used to help families cope when a relative has dementia. It has central messages like someone with dementia like people with dementia are not behaving in difficult ways on purpose and cannot change themselves. It has components which family carers use according to their needs e.g. relaxation, planning for the future, pleasant activities. It reduces depression in the short term and long term in carer participants to about 20% of the level of controls.
How is your joint research with Osaka University helping us better understand how to support the social functioning of people with dementia?
Dementia can cause profound changes in social functioning and relationships which is frequently very distressing for those with the condition and their families. We are working with researchers at Osaka University to understand the social consequences of dementia and how these are experience by people with dementia and their families. We hope in future to develop and evaluate novel approaches to treatment based on the knowledge we generate, including using new technologies which help people to connect with others.
What working achievement are you most proud of?
Legacy achievements. So we have a remarkable cohort of excellent, productive, brilliant staff in our department. Also the policy legacy of the commission which has led to health policy changes in for example the UK and US.