Though it is not the age group often covered when it comes to discussions on suicide, seniors (those 65 and older) struggle with suicide at a significant rate, which sources say requires more education on this issue and the individuals behind the statistics.
According to the National Council on Aging, people 85 and older have the highest suicide rate of any age group, with white men in that age range having a suicide rate almost six times that of the general population.
Some older adults who struggle with suicidal thoughts have had a long history of suicidality and depression, while others experience suicidal thoughts for the first time in old age. For this latter group, some of the largest contributing factors for suicidal thoughts are isolation, loneliness and a loss of purpose, said Lee-Ellen Marvin, director of education at Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services.
“Isolation is the killer, and connectedness can save lives,” Marvin said. “If people don’t navigate a transition into elderhood, they may feel really like, ‘What am I here for?’ And that could be an environment in which thoughts of suicide may emerge.”
One thing that can lead to an increased feeling of loneliness is the loss of a loved one, especially a spouse. Hospicare Manager of Bereavement Services Donna George said for those who suffer such a loss, it is important to establish a support network and even change their life at home.
“Get connected by either downsizing [or] moving into a home … places where they’re not so isolated and alone,” George said. “That’s one way, changing where they live. Another is getting involved and sharing their feelings. A lot of times, people aren’t there to help because they’re not realizing that people are really struggling.”
For older adults but especially white males over 85, suicidal thoughts can increase due to retirement making them lose their original sense of purpose, said Ann Dolan, clinical specialist of geriatric mental health at Family and Children’s Service of Ithaca.
“Especially older men who are alone have a very tough time with loneliness and feeling that they don’t have any more purpose in their lives,” Dolan said. “Their jobs and family gave them an anchor and a sense of purpose and directions, and they no longer have that, and that is a very difficult situation.”
The issue of senior suicide often goes underreported and under-discussed, sources said, for a variety of reasons. For one, just as with any age group, senior suicide rates are largely undercounted.
“When there are older adults, it’s much easier to hide their suicide death by saying they died of natural causes or they died of heart disease,” Marvin said.
For older generations, there can also be a lot of hesitation toward speaking up about suicidal feelings, George said.
“What happens is that older generations won’t share how they’re feeling and they could really want to end their life because of not feeling understood or not really realizing that there are other options for them,” George said.
Lisa Kendall, social work psychotherapist and clinical gerontologist in Ithaca, said another problem she has seen that can contribute to higher senior suicide rates is the misconceptions society has regarding elders in general.
“We have a culture that has pervasive ageism, so people are not aware of what elders have to offer, and so, they tend to become more socially isolated,” she said. “Because of our cultural ageism, I think elders aren’t necessarily aware of their own value, so there’s almost this internalized depression.”
Standing in the way of tackling this issue is a significant lack of resources, Dolan said. Many therapists, she said, focus their efforts on depression and suicide in children and teens, and though that work is important, not enough focus is put on seniors.
“I would like to see more counselors and therapists interested in working with older adults,” Dolan said. “The need is definitely there, and we’re all headed in the same direction, and the older adults really need someone to hear them and not just assume everything is OK.”
Providing the services is crucial, Dolan said, and equally important is making sure those services are easily accessible, which means increased outreach to seniors with limited technology access and those in rural areas.
Services like Love Living at Home are already helping to connected isolated seniors via internet chatrooms, and Dolan said using technology in this way can be a good way to help seniors struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“Anything to help them redefine what they consider their lives now, what can make them happy now, what makes a good life now,” she said.
Overall, the best way to help decrease suicide rates in older adults is to face the issue head-on and focus on proper education for everyone involved, those interviewed said.
Elderhood is a stage of life, and just like other life stages, adjustment can be difficult, George said, which is why it is important for doctors, social workers, family members and others to help in whatever way they can.
“If someone is talking about suicide, you have to take them very seriously and not assume that it’s just something that they’re saying off the top of their head and they don’t really mean it,” George said.
For family members of seniors, Marvin said it is important to talk about concerns as soon as possible and with an open mind. This can help alleviate the feeling of being a burden on their family for the person suffering with suicidal thoughts.
“If you have an elder in your family who deals with isolation, that’s something that, ideally, should be addressed,” she said. “No one wants to feel like they’re a burden, so are there ways in which a kind of sense of purposeness and reason for being alive can be supported by the larger family group?”
Kendall said another way to provide seniors with the support system they need is to have multiple generations work together and share knowledge and experiences.
“We can all do better if we have more opportunities to learn and to grow from each other, not just to feel that elders are people we give care to and then forget about for the rest of the day,” Kendall said.
Those struggling with thoughts of suicide are encouraged to call the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services hotline at (607) 272-1616, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 and local counseling services. You are not alone.
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