One Problem Goes Unnoticed: Suicide Among The Elderly

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
  • Illness
  • 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):

  • Insomnia
  • 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.


Related Reading:

5 Teens Speak Out About Suicide (Video Slideshow)

Army Suicide Numbers – on the rise

Suicide Contagion Effect: Traditional Media and Social Media


Image used under the Creative Commons Attribution License with thanks to bravenewtraveler.


Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Tom H.
Tom H.2 years ago

The hypocrisy of our culture regarding the suicidal in general and elder suicide in particular floors me. We're a culture that lauds youthfulness and demonizes aging. And "old" gets younger and younger every year, despite increasing life spans. Though officially illegal, age discrimination is rampant--all but condoned at a time when most cannot afford forcible retirement (very frequently without benefits). We no longer practice respect for older citizens, but instead openly disparage them for the apparently unforgiveable sin of surviving. We won't employ them. We won't include them. We won't even befriend them, instead preferring that they remain out of sight. And when, deprived of the very social connections research tells us humans, a social species, evolved to crave, the elderly decide sitting alone staring out a window for another day, waiting for family who've promised to visit yet who come up with countless excuses not to is not a life they deem worthy of living, THEN the rest of us express sadness, even regret. Why? Is the show for us? Sure, I realize the feelings are often real. But they are also often too late.

If someone is low enough on your list of priorities that you don't have time for regular visits, or you don't want to include her/him because she/he is no longer "fun," then at least understand that perhaps others in that person's vital support network felt the same about her/him, and your elderly family member or acquaintance chose not to endure what migh

Forester Maclean
Forester Maclean5 years ago

I am 70. Excellent physical health except for a CBI closed brain injury. No family. Relatives physically and socially distant. No assets. Pension below subsistence level. Now reside in 3rd world economy for survival, further isolated by culture and language. Airfare to get "home" but cannot afford US economy. Research online of even room rental, the rates consume my pension.

Been trying to augment income with a minimal investment account, just had a recent setback, down but not out....but tired of treading water, wanting to ascend and release the burden. I came online today curious if financial burden a significant cause of suicide, but it doesn't seem to be. My dearest cousin left in May because of his financial problems.

katarzyna phillips

it's a sad but true fact, wherever you are in the world.

i'm a tutor of the 'chronic disease self management programme' course which was pioneered in the us. in it, we look at various ways to deal with the effects of our conditions, about planning for the future [such as living wills and lasting power of attorney] and the ways everything feeds in, making the condition or individual symptoms worse. look it up for yourself. as part of my training, we looked at mental health first aid and that was really interesting. how different people see things and why, what to do if you find yourself in these situations where someone is contemplating suicide and how you can work effectively in the community with this knowledge.

unfortunately, as mentioned in many comments, the use of suicide is because there are many laws in a lot of countries that do NOT allow for 'legalised suicide', so people have to either go abroad to do it, or do it themselves at home. this is a part that ALL governments should look at, with compassion towards those considering it. the reader, TERRY PRATCHETT did an informative and emotive short series about his battle with alzheimer's and visited people in switzerland who were legally ending their life as he is contemplating this. why should people have to travel, or others being implicated for manslaughter if that is the true wish of the individual?

finally, i had to laugh, that there is an "american association of suicidology" make sure you read it correct

Summerannie Moon
Summerannie M6 years ago

Wow what an amazing statistic but I am inclined to believe it. Sadly the elderly lose a partner and if they were close they feel so isolated, lonely and alone. No children also gets the elderly as well and also people who arent well therefore they dont have a good network of friends or they dont drive or people arent interested in getting to know them. All in all the feeling of isolation and no validation can put immense stress on the elderly when they lives dont have a wide periphery.

Stanley Rampersad
Stanley Balgobin6 years ago

A senior suicide every 90 minutes? This is unacceptable. If RoMoney/LyinRyan steal the election, it will be a senior suicide every 90 seconds, when they destroy Medicare, and cut social security.