Are the Elderly at Risk for Suicide?
Posted Mar 16, 2012
In the U.S., suicide rates are highest for people between the ages of 40 and 59. But much older people take their own lives, too. Suicide is not common among the elderly but in 2009, almost 3,000 people age 75 and older took their own life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Why, when the disorders causing 90 percent of suicides (various forms of depression and substance abuse) are diagnosable and treatable? Why, when elderly people have weathered so many of life’s storms and for so long?
Depression and the elderly
The answer may lie in the fact that many elderly people suffer from untreated depression. Some people assume depression is just part of the aging process and there is nothing you can do about it. But, that could not be farther from the truth. Elderly people with depression may have a common but treatable chemical imbalance, and there is no reason why they should suffer.
Sometimes depression is caused by a medical condition, such a thyroid disorder, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, a stroke, tumor or some viral infections.
Common medications can also lead to symptoms of depression, including drugs for blood pressure and arthritis, hormones and steroids. The more meds a person takes, the more the chance for developing symptoms of depression. It is important for a primary care doctor to know all of the meds a person is taking. Alcohol and the use or abuse of painkillers can accelerate the process dramatically.
By the time a person reaches the 70s, he has undoubtedly lost friends and loved ones. Children and grandchildren might live far away, or are too busy to visit or call. Widows and widowers often find themselves isolated from the families. By choice or by chance they might spend most of their time alone, even on holidays.
Any sudden event, such as the onset of illness or the loss of a loved one, can upset the balance of an elderly person’s life. The person may start drinking, or drink more often. Or, might stay away from social contacts because he is embarrassed about his situation or do not want to be reminded of what his life once was. She may love to relive the past; but her friend may want to forget.
If I think my elderly loved one is at risk, what can I do to help?
- Alert a doctor, social worker or family member to the problem. It is possible that a change in medication or environment may be all that is needed to turn the person around.
- Help your loved one maintain continuity and predictability in life. Make sure he is eating regularly. If she lives alone, see that she spends time with other people, at least several times a week. Help build a routine for your loved one that includes a social life, some exercise and plans for the future.
- Express your concern. Tell her your relationship means a lot to you. Let him know you are not the only person who loves him. He is important in the lives of many others. You want to help him believe he is wanted and still useful in the lives of others.
- Get him in a safe place. Make sure there are no firearms or lethal drugs available in his environment. Don’t leave her alone. Keep a close watch on her moods and listen to what she says. Listen to your feelings: If you are alarmed, get help immediately.
If you or your loved one are in a crisis and need help immediately, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) any time, any day. Or go to www.suicide.org online. These 24-hour-a-day suicide prevention lifelines are free services, available to anyone. All calls are confidential.
By Paula Hartman Cohen
© 2012 Achieve Solutions®
Source: Kevin Caruso, founder, executive director and editor-in-chief of the suicide prevention website, Suicide.org; Gabriela Cora, M,D,,M,B,A,, psychiatrist, author, wellness coach, Miami, FL; LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D., M.S.S., psychologist, licensed clinical social worker and co-director of The Counseling Network of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, Sarasota, FL, which offers free counseling for grief, posttraumatic stress and family and children needs for military families and veterans.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Gottlieb, MD, Chief Medical Director, Adult Service, ValueOptions®, Connecticut and Bryce Goff, Director of Recovery and Resilience, Illinois Mental Health Collaborative