How to Help Suicidal Older Men and Women
The causes of elderly suicide are treatable and suicide is preventable. Risk Factors for elderly suicide and how to help suicidal seniors.
How You Can Help Prevent A Senior From Committing Suicide
For most older people, their life is a time of fulfillment, satisfaction with life's accomplishments. For some older adults, however, later life is a time of physical pain, psychological distress, and dissatisfaction with the present, and, perhaps, past aspects of life. They feel hopeless about making changes to improve their lives. Suicide is one possible outcome. However, the causes of elderly suicide are treatable and suicide is preventable. Each year more than 6,300 older adults take their own lives, which means nearly 18 older Americans kill themselves each day
Older adults have the highest suicide rate -- more than 50% higher than young people or the nation as a whole. Suicide is rarely caused by any single event or reason. Rather, it results from many factors working in combination which produce feelings of hopelessness and depression. Since suicide for the older person is not an impulsive act, you have a window of opportunity to help the older person get help. YOU can help prevent a suicide.
Suicide can happen in any family. However, life events commonly associated with elderly suicide are:
- the death of a loved one; physical illness
- uncontrollable pain
- fear of dying a prolonged death that damages family members emotionally and economically
- social isolation and loneliness
- and major changes in social roles, such as retirement.
Among the elderly, white men are the most likely to die by suicide, especially if they are socially isolated or live alone. The widowed, divorced, and recently bereaved are at high risk. Others at high risk include depressed individuals and those who abuse alcohol or drugs.
There are common clues to possible suicidal thoughts and actions in the elderly that must be taken seriously. Knowing and acting on these clues may provide you the opportunity to save a life. In addition to identifying risk factors, look for clues in someone's words and/or actions.
It is important to remember that any of these signs alone is not indicative of a suicidal person. But several signs together may be very important. The signs are even more significant if there is a history of previous suicide attempts.
A suicidal person may show signs of depression, such as:
- changes in eating or sleeping habits
- unexplained fatigue or apathy
- trouble concentrating or being indecisive
- crying for no apparent reason
- inability to feel good about oneself or unable to express joy
- behavior changes or are just "not themselves"
- withdrawal from family, friends or social activities
- loss of interest in hobbies, work, etc.
- loss of interest in personal appearance
A suicidal person also may:
- talk about or seem preoccupied with death
- give away prized possessions
- take unnecessary risks
- have had a recent loss or expect one
- increase their use of alcohol, drugs or other medications
- fail to take prescribed medicines or follow required diets
- acquire a weapon.
Immediate Action Is Needed If The Person Is Threatening Or Talking About Suicide If you have contact with older adults, look for these clues to a potentially suicidal person. Your observing, caring about, and a suicidal older adult the difference between life and death.
Some DOs and DON'Ts include:
DO learn the clues to a potential suicide and take them seriously.
DO ask directly if he or she is thinking about suicide. Don't be afraid to ask. It will not cause someone to be suicidal or commit suicide. You will usually get an honest answer. But don't act shocked, since this will put distance between you. (Some people may deny feeling suicidal but may still be very depressed and need help. You can encourage them to seek professional help for their depression. It's treatable.)
DO get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
DON'T taunt or dare him or her to do it. This "common remedy" could have fatal results.
DO be non-judgmental. Don't debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or feelings are good or bad. Don't lecture on the value of life.
DON'T be sworn to secrecy. Seek support. Get help from persons or agencies that specialize in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. Also seek the help of the older person's social support network: his or her family, friends, physician, clergy, etc.
DO offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance. It may make the person feel as if you don't understand.
DO take action. Remove easy methods they might use to kill themselves. Seek help.
There are resources available to help suicidal seniors. If you think that the person might harm him/herself or you observe clues of a possible suicide, immediately contact a professional to help. A community mental health agency, a private therapist, a family physician, a psychiatrist or medical emergency room, or a suicide/crisis center are resources listed in the yellow pages of your phone book.
Suicide is preventable at any age. Most suicidal persons do not want to die so much as they want to be rid of their emotional or physical pain. They need help. Depression is not a normal part of aging. The treatment for depression has a very high success rate. We can prevent the premature, unnecessary self-inflicted deaths of our seniors. Suicide causes society the loss of talent, skills, and knowledge as well as the personal loss of a loved one to the surviving family member. This is no less true when the person is an older adult.
The National Hopeline Network 1-800-SUICIDE provides access to trained telephone counselors, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Or for a crisis center in your area, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
American Association of Suicidology (202) 237-2280
American Association of Retired Persons 1-800-424-3410
Source: John McIntosh, Ph.D. Professor of Psychology, Indiana University-South Bend
Last Updated: 21 August 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD