Suicide Among the Elderly: Signs of Danger

In life’s sometimes painful progression, we, as adult children, expect to outlive our parents. This is the circle of life. One day, natural causes or an ongoing illness will lay claim to our elderly parents.  Yet there’s something we don’t anticipate: losing an aging parent to suicide. And yet, according to experts and organizations including the National Institute of Mental Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s actually this very population—specifically those between the ages of 65 and 85 (and beyond)—who are most at risk of self-inflicted death.

While statistics vary based on the year cited, it is said that this demographic, which makes up 12% of our population, is also responsible for as much as 18% of annual suicides. Worse, the actual number of elder suicides is underreported by as much as 40%. An older person’s suicide efforts are rarely just a cry for help and are almost always successful.

Would you recognize the warning signs in your own mom or dad? Here are some of the most common triggers of suicide ideation in seniors, in no particular order:

  • Increasing social isolation (through the loss of friends, family, loved ones, and mobility)
  • Substance abuse or misuse (alcohol, medication, etc.)
  • Intense feelings of grief (mourning the loss of a spouse, a career, or other activities)
  • Chronic illness and physical pain
  • Stressors of finances and housing
  • Depression and other neurological/behavioral changes (and no, these should not be regarded as a normal part of growing older)

Certainly, your own parent(s) may be experiencing one or more of these major life’s difficulties without any thoughts of self harm; but if your parent seems depressed or withdrawn, begins giving away prized possessions, or if you’ve noticed a change in his or her demeanor, please take immediate action.

What to do if you suspect your aging parent has suicidal ideations:

  • Remove any firearms from the residence
  • Search thoroughly for any hoarded quantities of medication
  • Make an emergency appointment with a psychotherapist who specializes in the geriatric population
  • Do not leave the person alone until he or she has been assessed by a professional
  • Encourage your parent to speak openly with you. Listen with compassion and without judgment
  • Find a support group of other seniors, so Mom or Dad can experience the ongoing support of peers
  • In the meantime, encourage your parent to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

Above all else, take the threat seriously. “What if?” and “If only…” are terrible burdens to bear.

Aging is a complex process, ripe with its own unique issues. I help families navigate these waters through healthy dialogue. If I can be of assistance to your family, or if you know someone who’s struggling with how to care for his or her older parents, please get in touch with me.

All the best,

Rabbi Scott Saulson, Ph.D.




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