Background Little research focuses on the older adult with life-threatening illness and their carer simultaneously, nor the role of the interpersonal and familial context around them. The purpose of this study was to identify factors associated with poor mental health and lack of shared appraisal of symptoms. Methods Multilevel modeling was used to examine cross-sectional data from 135 older adult-spouse carer dyads with life-threatening illness (59 with congestive heart failure and 76 with lung cancer). This was a secondary analysis of quantitative data from two studies. Data were gathered using established measures of symptoms (dyspnoea, fatigue, pain), depression, concealment, relationship quality and family support with in-person interviews conducted separately for older adults and their carers. Diagnosis and stage of disease were gathered from clinical records. Results Older adults with heart failure reported significantly more depressive symptoms than older adults with lung cancer, whereas spouses caring for someone with heart failure reported significantly less depressive symptoms than those caring for someone with lung cancer. Greater levels of spouse depressive symptoms were significantly associated with less shared appraisal of the older adult's fatigue and pain interference, controlling for the quality of the relationship between them. Finally, risk factors for higher depressive symptoms of older adults included higher levels of concealing symptoms and worries from their spouse, advanced stage of disease, reporting low relationship quality and low levels of support from family. Risk factors for higher depressive symptoms of spouse carers included being younger and reporting low support from family. Conclusion Findings highlight the importance of taking a dyadic approach to life-threatening illness in older adults and the role of interpersonal and familial variables on the mental health of both members. Interventions to support and strengthen relationships and communication and address depressive symptoms of both members of the dyad are warranted.