If you have an elderly loved one, you undoubtedly worry about his/her physical and cognitive health, but has it ever occurred to you to worry about the risk of suicide? Probably not. Senior suicide is actually much more common that most people realize. In 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 5,404 suicides in the United States among those aged 65 and older, according to the American Association of Suicidology. That figure translates into nearly 15 elder suicides per day, or one suicide every hour and 37 minutes. That same year, older adults comprised only 12.4 percent of the population, yet they represented 16.6 percent of all suicides. Being aware of the risk and knowing some of the signs to look for is the best way to prevent your older loved one from becoming a victim of senior suicide.
Who Is Most at Risk for Senior Suicide?
Older men are at higher risk of committing suicide than older women. White males aged 85 and older are at the highest risk among all older adults. Challenges placed on aging individuals can result in depression, which can easily evolve into clinical depression, according to Patrick Arbore, EdD, director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services Institute on Aging in San Francisco. “An older person who is diagnosed with a complex illness such as cancer, Parkinson’s, diabetes, dementia, etc. can trigger a depression,” he says.
Likewise, losses that include the death of loved ones, pets, and even the potential loss of self can become extremely difficult to manage for elders, he says. Fears surrounding the ability to maintain an independent living status “can arouse enormous anxiety, especially when the older person values autonomy above all else.”
Just as research in gerontology has shown a pattern in older adulthood associated with greater happiness in later life with activity and flexibility, the lack of such attributes or styles may be associated with unhappiness and possibly suicide in late life, according to John L. McIntosh, PhD, a professor of psychology at Indiana University South Bend. “Health, finances, and social support are extremely important issues in life satisfaction and almost certainly suicide and depression in late life as well,” says McIntosh. “Studies consistently show the tremendous relationship between suicide and depression.”
Among other personality traits associated with older adult suicide cited by Arbore are timidity, shyness, seclusiveness, a tendency toward hypochondriasis, hostility, and a rigid, fiercely independent lifestyle. Other factors associated with suicide are frustration and anger, both of which can lead to aggressive behavior toward oneself, says Arbore. Other contributing elements may include physical or psychological pain, frustrated psychological needs, and feelings of helplessness or hopelessness.
“Attitudes and beliefs can be significant factors in suicide, particularly autonomy, dignity, and responsibility,” says Arbore. “Alcohol and other substance use disorders also place older people at significantly increased risk for suicide.” Unlike suicides among young people, “Older adult suicide is not an impulsive act,” says Chi. “Elderly suicide is contemplated for a long period of time.”
Elders who experience an elevated risk for suicide embrace a psychological perspective of inability to tolerate the level of psychological pain they are experiencing, believe there are no solutions for their problems, perceive themselves as powerless to change their life circumstances, feel that they are a burden to others, or find that life has no meaning, according to McIntosh.
Is Your Older Loved One at Risk?
How do you know if an elderly loved one is contemplating suicide? Unfortunately there isn’t a sure fire way to know; however, you can watch for signs. Any change in behavior should be noted. Sleep problems, either sleeping too much or too little, eating problems, or other signs of depression should be taken seriously. Of course, the presence of firearms in the household certainly increases the risk. “When verbal statements of wanting to die or kill oneself are heard, they should be taken seriously and mental health help sought immediately,” McIntosh says. Unfortunately, there are “few resources designed specifically for older adults who are suicidal,” but he suggests a national hotline number, 800-273-TALK (8255), that older adults can call. Additionally, according to Arbore, the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services operates the only 24-hour hotline for older adults in the country. This “Friendship Line for the Elderly” has been providing around-the-clock assistance to depressed, isolated, bereaved, lonely, and/or suicidal older adults since 1973.
Contact Indianapolis Elder Law Attorneys
For more information, please join us for one of our FREE seminars. If you have specific questions about elder law issues or concerns, contact the experienced Indianapolis elder law attorneys at Frank & Kraft by calling (317) 684-1100 to schedule an appointment.