Suicidal thoughts can affect anyone regardless of gender, background or age.However, while the elderly account for just 13% of the population, they account for nearly 16% of all suicides. The statistics are shocking, especially knowing the elderly are the fastest growing segment of our population, making this elderly mental health concern – senior suicide – a public health priority.
Caucasian men aged 65 to 84 are at an even higher risk, accounting for 14.9 out of every 100,000 suicide deaths – and the number rises even higher in men over aged 85. It is estimated that suicide deaths in the elderly may be under-reported by over 40%.
These figures do not include the “silent suicides” – deaths from self-starvation, dehydration, accidents and overdoses. The elderly also have a higher than average rate of completing a suicide, as they are often deaths by firearms, hanging and drowning. And, there is a higher incidence of double suicide involving a spouse among the elderly population.
Senior suicide is often the result of an untreated elderly mental health condition. Although common, suicidal thoughts should not be considered normal and often indicate more serious issues.Health care providers often report that the elderly have an exceedingly difficult time in talking with others, especially mental health professionals, about their feelings or challenges. This is largely due to the stigma surrounding mental health issues and makes missed detection the biggest contributor in the high suicide rates among the elderly.
Those at Risk
It is very difficult to identify individuals at risk for suicide, even for professionals. However, there are some risk factors to keep in mind:
- Being a white male over the age of 65
- Prolonged, chronic or terminal illness
- Pain, especially if pain is severe, chronic
- Alcohol abuse and/or dependence
- Financial difficulties
- Recent loss of a spouse, loved one, or pet
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Physical, social and emotional Isolation/loneliness
- Loss of role or stature in family or community
- Recent change in living situation or employment status or productive activities
The following are common warning signs that an elderly person may be contemplating suicide:
- Crying and sad mood; typical signs of depression
- Weight loss and poor appetite
- Feeling trapped in a situation and unable to see a way out
- Statements about death and suicide
- Statements about being a burden
- Reading material about death and suicide
- Statements of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness
- Disruption of sleep patterns (insomnia or over-sleeping)
- Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
- Giving away possessions
- Increased alcohol or prescription drug use
- Failure to take care of self or follow medical orders
- Stockpiling medications
- Sudden interest in firearms
- Withdrawal of social interactions or elaborate good-byes
- Rush to complete or revise a will
How to Help
As many as 50% to 75% of elders considering suicide will give someone a warning sign. However, not everyone who is considering suicide will say something, and not everyone who threatens suicide will make an attempt, though every threat of suicide should be taken seriously. Remaining aware of the risk factors and warning signs and talking openly to your loved one about your concerns are critical in preventing elder suicide.
It is also important to identify the mental health professionals in the community who can provide assistance. Remember, you never have to be alone in seeking help for your loved one, and if you are unsure whether your loved one is immediately at risk for suicide, get help by taking the individual to the nearest emergency room for evaluation and treatment.
One great resource is the Institute on Aging’s 24-hour toll-free Friendship Line for elder adults in crisis: 800-971-0016. Their trained professionals are available to support seniors who are struggling with depression, loneliness and suicidal thoughts. The Veteran’s Crisis Line is also available toll-free 24 hours a day for senior veterans and their families to receive counselling and support: 800-273-8255.
At Nightingale Homecare, the top providers of senior home care Phoenix families trust, we offer a program devoted to elderly mental health and safety: Transitions. Our team of experts (nurses, social workers, and therapists) can provide an assessment to determine if depression, anxiety, coping skills and other emotional concerns are in place, and determine what resources would be most beneficial. Contact us at (602) 504-1555 any time to learn more.