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Preventing Suicide Among Older Adults

September Is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

Suicide among younger people receives a lot of media attention. But did you know that the suicide rate is highest among older adults? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 47,173 people in the U.S. took their lives in 2017, and 8,568 of them were older than 65.

Seniors are more likely to attempt suicide—and sadly, reports the American Geriatrics Society, they are more likely to succeed. Senior men, especially, are more likely to use a firearm, which makes it more likely that an attempt will be fatal. Seniors are less likely to share that they are having suicidal thoughts in time for friends, family or professionals to intervene. They are more likely to live alone, so it’s less likely an attempt will be discovered before it’s too late. And physical frailty makes seniors less able to recover from an attempt.

Awareness of this issue is so important. Experts share factors that can raise the risk among older adults:

  • Mental illness and mood disorders, especially major depression
  • Substance abuse and misuse, which includes alcohol, prescription and over-the-counter medications, and other controlled substances
  • A physical illness that causes pain, disability or insomnia
  • Life circumstances that lead to loneliness and isolation, such as giving up driving, loss of a spouse, mobility limitation and sensory loss
  • Prolonged grief after loss of a loved one that does not lessen
  • Feelings of hopelessness—a lack of purpose, low self-esteem, or a feeling of “being a burden”
  • A history of suicide attempts or a family member who has ended their life
  • Access to means of suicide, such as firearms or large amount of certain medications

Family and friends should also know the warning signs that a senior might be contemplating suicide. Here are warning signs to be alert for:

  • Threats or comments about wanting to die or kill themselves—take talk seriously
  • Expressions of hopelessness, feeling trapped or feeling like they are a burden
  • Putting their affairs in order and giving things away
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Expressions of feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Buying a firearm, stockpiling medications or otherwise looking for a way to access lethal means
  • Sleeping much more or much less

If you believe the person is in crisis, see the emergency contact information at the bottom of this page and seek help right away.

Lowering the Risk

If a senior loved one seems to be depressed or in despair, the first step is to talk about ways they can feel better, and how you can help. Geriatric psychologists recommend these steps:

Seek treatment for depression. Depression is so common among older adults that some people think it is “just a part of growing older.” It is not normal, and it can be treated. Counseling, lifestyle changes and medications can make a big difference. If your loved one is exhibiting signs of sadness, helplessness, lack of energy or loss of interest in things that used to bring them pleasure, they should be evaluated by a doctor.

Combat loneliness. More and more research shows that social isolation is terribly damaging for older adults. A person who feels alone may not feel that life is worth living. Yet the circumstances we face in our later years can make it challenging to remain socially connected. We may lose our spouse and other people who are close to us. Retiring from our job, we might suddenly go for days without encountering other people. Check out social opportunities for older adults in your loved one’s area.

Manage health conditions. Many diseases and disorders that are more common with age can challenge our ability to feel good about life. Pain, disability, sensory loss, dementia, and even the side effects of medication can all lead to a downward spiral, when a senior loses the ability to drive, live independently, communicate with others, read or do other things that have always been so important in life. Regular healthcare appointments, following the doctor’s recommendations and living a healthier lifestyle can help seniors feel better and more empowered. And a support group for people facing similar challenges can be a powerful way to connect with others!

Find a sense of purpose. Changes to our health and circumstances can be a real blow to our self-esteem. When we don’t feel like we make a difference in the world, our life feels much less worth living. Help your loved one find new hobbies, follow spiritual pursuits, take a class, write a memoir. And millions of seniors can attest that volunteering is the very best way to make a difference. There are volunteer opportunities for people of every ability.

Recognize and treat alcohol and drug abuse. More seniors these days are drinking too much, say experts. Overuse of alcohol can be a symptom of depression when a senior self-medicates—but on its own, alcohol also raises the risk of suicide. Today’s opioid crisis has hit seniors hard, as well. Addiction can lead to despair and many seniors who take their lives do so with an overdose of opioid medications.

Help is available!

If you need help yourself, or you believe that someone you know is considering suicide, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (suicidepreventionlifeline.org) at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or text the crisis line (text HELLO to 741741). These services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Hearing-impaired people can contact the Lifeline via TTY at 1-800-799-4889. All calls are confidential.


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