Suicide in The Elderly: Risk Factors and Warning Signs

The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain—both people whose lives seemed full and rich in every sense of the word, have helped to open the topic of suicide up for discussion across dinner tables all over the world.

If you’re caring for elderly parents or have parents who are aging, you need to be paying attention.

While no one knows specifically what drives another to take his or her life, one thing we do know is that those who commit suicide are suffering deeply, either from chronic, severe depression or grueling physical conditions, including long-term pain and illness. All of these circumstances are common in the elderly sector, and often compounded together.

According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates among older males, especially, have grown disproportionately to the rest of the population, with those age 85 and older having the highest suicide rate of any other populace in the US. Just as frightening, elder suicide is typically well planned and successful. It is not a cry for attention; it is a way out.

So what can you do to help ensure your own parent(s)’ safety?

Be proactive in battling the most common risk factors, including:


  • Isolation


Social isolation is a literal killer, particularly in the elderly. Imagine how you would feel, having lived an active and productive life for decades, only then to have your very mobility become more and more limited. While we are busy with our own chaotic lives, often our aging parents are growing increasingly isolated from activities, hobbies, outings, and friends.

  • Depression

Unfortunately, diagnosis of depression in seniors is often missed, as many health care professionals simply consider the effects of aging (illness, loss of mobility, death of close friends and loved ones, etc.) to be perfectly “normal” or anticipated and don’t offer treatment options. The fact is, there is effective treatment available, no matter a person’s age.


  • Pain


Chronic pain is grueling. It can lead to further issues with mobility as well as a dark outlook on life. Here again, treatment options should be explored (though opioids and the elderly are another topic entirely, so physical therapy and alternative paths of treatment should be explored first).


  • Illness


As with ongoing pain, above, a person in failing health may become increasingly frustrated with the state of his or her life. Illness is costly, it is time-consuming and downright depressing, and it can tend to take over anyone’s life.


  • Late in life mood disorder


A change in cognitive function of any kind may lead to erratic and/or unexpected behavior.


  • Loss of a spouse/loved ones


Not only is there the loss of a partner or close friends to consider, but this awakening of one’s own mortality as age continues to encroach can be difficult to bear,

Just because your mom or dad is living with one, if not all of these risk factors, doesn’t mean you need to be in constant fear, of course—not at all. However, these are some of the major signs that your parent could be in danger:

  • Onset of a major depressive state
  • Loss of interest in hygiene
  • Stockpiling of medicines and/or sudden change in prescription medication routine
  • Firearm acquisition
  • Purposeful social isolation
  • Expression of intent—which should never, ever be brushed off. Comments such as “I am tired of being a burden,” “Maybe I won’t be here for (________),” etc. should always be taken seriously.

So what’s a caregiver to do? Open up the conversation, for starters. Don’t be afraid to ask your parent if he or she has been thinking about inflicting self harm. Additionally, reassess your parent(s)’ living situation and see where improvements to risk factors can be made.

If you are the caregiver of an aging parent, I want to let you know that there is help out there for you and your family. Please get in touch with me so I can help you find the resources you need.

All the best,

Rabbi Scott Saulson, Ph.D.


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