Elder Suicide – A Late Life Tragedy
Media coverage focused mainly on the “public” nature of the death. This reflects our limited public understanding of elder suicide. We need to know more about this problem and our concern can’t be limited to losses that occasionally catch us off guard.
Try this short True/False quiz to test your knowledge of elder suicide:
These statements are all true! They have been well-known facts for a long time. Nonetheless few would probably get even one of our quiz questions correct.
Why are we so uninformed about suicide among elders? For a start, we don’t hear about elder suicides as much as those involving younger individuals. Why? It may be because society doesn’t see suicide in elders the same way as in other groups. This may be because the victims are felt to be old and at risk of dying anyway or because suicide may seem “rational” if chronic or terminal illness is present.
The burden of loss with the suicide of an older individual is no less than for suicides among the non-elderly. Losing anyone of any age to suicide is devastating to those directly affected. Like all suicides, those involving elders send a “message” that suicide is an option if things get bad enough. For these reasons and others, we must try to prevent elder suicides and act to keep their number from rising as the aged population swells in coming decades.
We can start with the key factors linked to elder suicide. These include depression, a significant personal loss (e.g., the death of a spouse), decreased quality of life and self-sufficiency, fewer social ties and supports, and serious physical and cognitive impairments. Also involved are misuse of alcohol and prescription and over-the-counter medications as well as a resistance to seeking help and inflexibility about change.
Next we must learn some of the key warning signs:
· Breaking medical regimens (e.g., not renewing prescriptions)
These are all signs that something is wrong. None are “normal” in the elderly. If you see them in someone directly ask if he or she is thinking of suicide or self-harm. If the answer is yes, say that you care and want to help. If they give a reason for wanting to die, don’t minimize its meaning. Offer to assist in getting help. Don’t hesitate to call 9-1-1 if the individual voices clear intent, talks about a suicide plan, or has access to lethal means.
Here are some practical steps to take to prevent elder suicide:
Above all, it must be accepted that elder suicides, like those of adults and youths, are preventable and premature deaths that do not have to happen. We can keep elder suicides from occurring by making elder suicide prevention an objective of the health care, aging, and mental health service systems and getting them to work together to achieve it.