While suicide among teenagers is often given a high profile in the media, the issue of suicide among older adults and the elderly often goes under-reported. How big is the problem and how can you help?
Suicide Among Older Adults: The Statistics
The most recent statistics based on 2009 data from the American Association of Suicidology shows that even though the elderly — defined as people age 65 and over — make up only 12.9 percent of the population, they account for almost 15.9 percent of all suicides. To put this in perspective, the rate of suicide among the elderly in 2009 was 14.8 per 100,000 or one elder suicide every 90 minutes, nearly 16 every day and a total of 5,858 suicides among those 65 and older.
In terms of demographics, men are much more likely to take their own lives. Figures show that in 2009, 84.4 percent of elder suicides were male, 5.4 times greater than the rate of female suicides. It should be noted that this isn’t as surprising as it might first appear, since the rate of suicide for women has long been known to decline after age 60 as women in fact suffer an at-risk peak in what is known as “middle adulthood,” ages 45-49.
While all racial groups show a high prevalence of elder male suicide, the segment of the male population most likely to take their own lives is elderly white men, with a rate of approximately 31.2 suicides per 100,000 each year. White men over the age of 85 are the greatest risk, with 2009′s statistics showing the suicide rate for these men to be 45.6 per 100,000. Again, to put that in context it works out at a rate 2.4 times higher than the current rate for men of all ages, which stands at 19.2 per 100,000.
Another important thing to note is that older adults attempt suicide less frequently than other groups however the elderly have a dramatically higher mortality rate — they also often have ready access to firearms and prescription drugs, the two leading methods of suicide for the demographic.
When combining all ages there is an estimated 1 suicide for every 100-200 attempts. However, beyond the age of 65 there is one estimated suicide for every 4 attempted suicides.
For a full breakdown of the statistics please click here.
Why Do Older Adults Commit Suicide?
There is no one factor that causes someone to commit suicide, however there are a number issues.
The biggest commonality in older adults is clinical depression. Many see depression as an inevitable part of getting older as one copes with declining health and the loss of loved ones. However, while feeling “down” is normal, clinical depression at any age is not. It is medically treatable and should not just be accepted, something that doctors are very keen to stress.
Common risk factors surrounding elder suicide include:
- The recent death of a spouse, family member or friend
- The fear of a prolonged illness
- Social isolation and feelings of loneliness
- Major life changes, particularly retirement
Common suicide warning signs in an older adult include (but are not limited to):
- Weight loss
- Feelings of guilt
- Feelings of purposelessness
- Feelings of being a burden
- Dramatic changes in regular routines
- Refusing social activities
- Giving away prized possessions
Below is a video chronicling one elder woman’s battle with depression after she and her family took the decision to place her spouse in a care facility that could better manage his medical needs, leaving her feeling vulnerable and isolated:
How to Help an At-Risk Older Adult and Prevent Suicide
Many of the ways discussed in how to prevent suicide among teenagers is also applicable to older adults. However there are some things that are particularly relevant to older adults. They include:
Intervention — Acting on clues in changes in personality, behaviors and routines; talking honestly with the adult about their feelings of depression; ensuring the older adult sees a medical professional.
Maintaining — Helping the at-risk individual maintain their medical intervention, whether by driving them to health appointments or ensuring they are adhering to prescribed treatments, whether in the form of prescription drugs, psychotherapy or other methods, that will enable them to combat their depression.
Socializing — Many older adults become isolated as their medical needs increase and their circle of friends grows smaller; it is vital to stave off general feelings of depression by ensuring that older adults are able to live their lives to the fullest extent, including being able to contribute to the community they live in. Take time to ensure they have an engaging social calendar and are able to indulge in interests they are passionate about.
In terms of actual medical treatments, anti-depressants and in some cases psychotherapy have been shown to be beneficial, though a doctor will be able to tailor a treatment program to the elderly patient’s particular needs.
As to what might help the problem of properly addressing older adult and elderly suicides, a frank and open discussion that doesn’t treat our elder population as an afterthought is a must. Also, a medical system that does not price elderly people out of receiving the treatments they need to continue living their lives to the fullest surely must be a priority, including ensuring that elder care facilities are well funded, regulated and staffed.