Did you know that our elderly have the highest suicide rate in our nation and that those who attempt it oftentimes succeed? In fact, it is the fourth leading cause of death in the elderly (age 65 and older). Many times we assume that depression and hopelessness are a part of getting old, but that is not the case. There are many elderly people who enjoy their golden years with family and friends, while others find living their lives to be an overwhelming experience littered with loneliness and isolation, especially after the death of a spouse, health issues, financial loss, or, for that matter, having to cope with a chronic illness. Life to them seems almost unbearable so they contemplate suicide.
Every day 15 elderly adults 65 years of age or older die of suicide in the U.S. and a large percentage have a diagnosable mental health issue like depression, anxiety or substance abuse. Elderly males die more violently and more frequently than elderly females. Even in nursing homes and assisted living areas, there is a high attempted or suicide rate.
Who are at risk?
Everyone is. There is no typical suicide victim.
Here are some of the most common risk factors:
1) Signs of Depression – hopelessness, anxiety, withdrawal from social contacts, mood changes, fatigue, and changes in your sleep and weight. The diagnosis of untreated depression is about one-third of our seniors.
2) Health Problems – cancers, chronic pain, and chronic illness
3) Loneliness or Isolation – Though depression is important, it is the isolation that tends to be the reason why many seniors look to suicide for relief of their pain, especially those elderly living alone as a result of getting divorced or being widowed.
4) Substance Abuse – alcohol and /or drug use
5) Death or loss of a family member or relationship
6) Access to firearms or other lethal means
7) Reckless behavior
8) Expressions of feelings of wanting to die or lack of purpose
9) Lack of concentration
10) Medical complaints such as headaches, stomachaches or chronic pains
11) Major changes in life including retirement, loss of independence, or moving to a new location like an assisted living facility or nursing home
Be aware that some diseases can cause depression and may affect the elderly you know. These include:
1) Thyroid disease
4) Chronic illnesses including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), diabetes or arthritis
Some medications can also cause depression. Find out if the elderly you know are taking any of these:
1) Blood pressure medications
2) Arthritis medications
3) Anti-depressant medications
Some of the elderly are good at keeping their intentions a secret. Others show signs that they are thinking of ending their lives themselves. Here are some hints they tend to give to reveal their plans:
1) Making a will or giving away their prized possessions
2) Buying a gun, rope, poison or drugs
Oftentimes, loved ones panic when they get the slightest hint that their loved one might be contemplating suicide. Here are some protective ideas to help you if you see the signs above in the elderly you know and care about:
1) Mental Health Counselors and Substance Abuse Counselors – If the elderly you know show signs of suicide, then it is important to get them to talk about their fears and troubles. Let them know they are not alone and get them professional help.
2) Strong Family Ties and Social Ties to the Community – Playing games, dining together, and frequent visits give them something to look forward to.
3) Decrease access to any lethal weapons or equipment
4) Help give them a sense of purpose
5) Encourage them to exercise or start learning new hobbies
6) Help them find a support group or community group
Suicidal tendencies are hard to detect in seniors due to their lack of wanting to tell anyone about how they feel. They may feel embarrassed about their despair and hopelessness. They may be depressed and not realize they are contemplating suicide. They may not want to burden their loved ones with their thoughts, especially if they don’t feel important anymore or feel like they don’t matter.
Most seniors who have committed suicide have seen their primary care doctors up to 4 weeks prior to the actual event. It is important to look for clues to help anticipate this preventable condition. The elderly do not want to be seen by their doctors as weak, crazy, or suffering from memory loss. They want to be seen as healthy and feel they are doing well, especially at their age. For this reason alone, they may not choose to share their true feelings of despair or hopelessness with their primary care physician.
All of us who are in the medical community must be on the alert to not only hear what our elderly are saying, but to look much deeper as to what is not being said. Just as much as family members do, it is our job as medical professionals to listen to our elderly patients and then inquire about the areas we are not hearing about.
It is important for family members to also become involved with their parents and grandparents to help them understand that they are important, that they stay engaged in their lives, and find their true purpose in these later stages of life. It is such a waste of these valuable human beings when we overlook them or become so busy with our own lives that we do not give our elders the respect they so deserve—for without the past, there would be no today, and without today, there would be no future.
Every human being is a gift to each of us. We can learn so much from the experiences of our elders so that we do not fall prey to the same mistakes and relive our family’s histories of destruction and failures.
I ask each of you to take notice of our elders and give them the respect they so deserve as well as learn from their stories. Take time to listen to them and take in what they have to share. Remember, one day the world will not revolve around us, for one day we will look in the mirror and see that the years have passed, wrinkles have grown, and now we ourselves are the elderly.
Let us teach our children the importance and purpose of our elders so that when our time comes we will be respected and valued as a gift to humankind—for our day will come, believe me!
Please pay attention and be alert to all our seniors’ lives and behaviors so we can savor their existence for as long as they are alive. Let’s help them stay with us as long as they can!
With much respect and gratitude to all our elders—I so appreciate you!!