The recent very publicly discussed suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain opened conversation about suicides among seniors. I was at a local bakery and overheard several middle-aged people talking about this as they expressed surprise that “successful people” would kill themselves and were even more shocked that “someone of their age would do this”. They went even further stating that drugs were “probably involved because you know how those stars are”.
Yes, we know how “those stars are”.
Spade’s family came forward immediately following her death and discussed her longstanding problems with mental illness and depression. For Bourdain, the majority of reports highlighted his history of drug addiction and most speculated that his history of alcohol abuse and alcoholism was a contributor to his death. Then came the coroner’s report that no drugs or alcohol was found in his system. This was followed by those who knew him admitting they were aware of his history of depression.
Here’s the reality – seniors, many of them clinically depressed, commit suicide at an alarming rate. The most recent figures from the CDC shows that there are 15 suicides out of every 100,000 people over the age of 65 in the United States. For all people in this country, the suicide rate is 12 out of 100,000.
“Although this may seem like a small number statistically”, says Attorney Connelly, “given the aging baby boomers and the growth of the senior population, these numbers could increase significantly unless we begin to take this problem seriously.”
Experts concur with Attorney Connelly’s observations. The CDC reports that as our society ages and even if the rates of suicide remain stagnant among this demographic, more than 11,000 seniors aged 65 and above will kill themselves – a startling number.
What’s even more concerning is the fact that the true numbers of suicide in the elderly may never be known. Mental health professionals in reviewing some of the “suspect deaths” of seniors feel the numbers may be under reported by some 40 percent. They cite deaths by “silent suicide” – those that occur from overdoses, self-starvation, dehydration and other “accidents”.
Characteristics of high risk for seniors are being a white male and being divorced. The strongest risk factor, according to professionals, is having a major psychiatric disorder such as major depression, which is very often associated with suicide.
In his practice, Attorney Connelly is very familiar with how depression affects seniors and their families, many times coming into contact with them following a medical emergency.
“An older person who is diagnosed with a complex illness such as cancer, Parkinson’s, diabetes, dementia, etc. can trigger a depression and set the stage for suicidal thinking. It is more common than many realize”, says Attorney Connelly.
Dr. Alexandre Dombrovski, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh, says that depression itself is not the sole factor in senior suicide. Misuse of alcohol or prescription drugs is also a major risk factor as well as a recent medical diagnosis, family discord, financial problems, physical disability, chronic pain and grief.
“It is the combination of one or several of these problems with depression that leads
the person to feel trapped, making suicide appear like the best solution,” Dombrovski said.
Don Drake, a presenter for Connelly Law Office’s Community Education series and retired licensed clinician in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts echoes Dr. Dombrovski’s findings.
“Our society has fostered certain beliefs and attitudes that become significant factors in suicidal behaviors. For seniors, losing autonomy, the perceived lack of dignity and loss of a family role can lead to depression and a lack of self-worth. Add to this alcohol and drug abuse and the risk of suicide increases exponentially”.
Drake says that the higher rate for men is also the result of real or perceived societal expectations that have been in place since a young age.
“Even in the age of political correctness, men are still conditioned to withhold their feelings. Aging pushes these feelings down even more as we begin to lose the roles we held in the family structure as our physical and mental abilities decline. Death is inevitable but for men, discussing our fears about the end of life can be terrifying. For some men, suicide is about taking control of the situation rather than waiting for death to come. For others, the pain of multiple losses and the inability to express these feelings appropriately can also result in suicide. As a society, we need to do better”, says Drake.
As we mentioned earlier, seniors often struggle with multiple losses as they age. Mental health professionals cite the fact that losing status in the family and in society can be the precursor to a depressive episode. Becoming a victim of a financial scam only reinforces for some seniors that they are no longer able to care for themselves. And for some, these type of events could be the last straw.
“Sadly, there are scammers lurking everywhere on the internet and in the community just waiting to separate a senior from their life savings. As a firm, we help seniors and their families on a regular basis address financial abuse perpetrated by these online charlatans”, said Attorney Connelly. “Unfortunately, some are too embarrassed when they are victimized and make the decision not to share this crime with others, leading to mental health issues or even worse”.
This 82 year old woman took her life after being scammed by a con artist - leaving her with just $69 in her bank account. Watch this disturbing report from ABC7 News.
And it appears that the “even worse” that Attorney Connelly is alluding to is happening on a regular basis around the country as victimized seniors are taking their lives after falling for a scam. Here are a few examples:
A Texas woman says her 82-year-old grandmother, who lost all of her money to a con artist, was so devastated by the scam, she committed suicide. The woman said her grandmother fell prey to a sweepstakes scam. She was told she won money but needed to pay fees and taxes. She ultimately sent all of her money to scammers and later had to borrow money from family members, took out all of her life insurance and then tragically committed suicide. She died with $69 in her bank account.
A 77-year-old man took his own life after falling victim to what the FBI calls, 'the grandparent scam' earlier this year. According to Margie Limmer, the daughter of victim Ed Faust, her father received a call from the Dominican Republic. The scammers said they were the authorities and had Faust's grandson in custody. The scammers said if he didn't wire them money, his grandson would go to jail. "Daddy goes, 'I've just been scammed, I've been made a fool of,' and my nephew said that he was very upset and after that he went in the backyard and killed himself," Limmer said.
Albert Poland, Jr, 81, took his own life after years of receiving daily calls from Jamaica asking him for money. The Harriman, Tennessee, resident was repeatedly promised a lottery jackpot of up to $3million. Poland, who was married with two grown children and two granddaughters, suffered from Alzheimer's and dementia.
We mentioned earlier that suicide affects older, white divorced males more than any other group, but the truth is, suicide does not discriminate.
People of all genders, ages, and ethnicities can be at risk. The CDC reports that
Native Americans and Alaskan Natives have the highest rates of suicide followed by non-Hispanic whites. African Americans tend to have the lowest rates of suicide while Hispanics tend to have the second lowest rate. The bottom line is this – any threat of suicide, from any individual no matter what race, gender, ethnicity or religion needs to be taken seriously.
So what do we need to be aware of? Let's look below:
Risk Factors for Suicide
Depression, or other mental illnesses
Alcohol or drug abuse or addiction
A history of suicidal thoughts or attempts
A family history of mental illness or substance abuse
Family violence, include physical or sexual abuse
Having guns or other firearms in the home
Recently released from prison
Being exposed to the suicidal behaviors of others – such as family members, peers or celebrities
Signs of Depression in Seniors
Fatigue or apathy (that cannot be linked to a medication or health condition)
Changing in eating habits or sleeping habits
Crying for no apparent reason
Inability to express joy or have fun
Changes in personality – “They’re just not themselves”
Withdrawal from family and friends
Loss of interest in hobbies
Personal appearance and hygiene deteriorates
A Suicidal Individual May Also:
Talk about or be preoccupied with death
Begin giving away prized possessions
Take unnecessary risks
Increase the use of drugs, alcohol or other medications
Fail to take prescribed medicines or follow required diets
Skip medical appointments
Acquire a weapon
Precipitating Factors for a Suicide Attempt:
The recent death of a loved one or close friend
A prolonged physical illness
Fear that a chronic illness will damage the family emotionally and financially
Social isolation and loneliness
Major changes in social roles like retirement
Many people have some of these risk factors but do not attempt suicide. It is important to note that suicide is not a normal response to stress. Suicidal thoughts or actions are a sign of extreme distress, not a harmless bid for attention, and should not be ignored.
Here is a list of some Do’s and Don’ts should you see some of these warning signs and suspect that a senior may be depressed or be at risk of suicide.
DO learn what the signs of depression and the behaviors are of a suicidal person
DO ask directly if a person is thinking about suicide. DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK. The question will not “make” someone commit suicide and in most cases, the suicidal person is relieved to be able to talk about their pain with another.
DO NOT act shocked if you receive an honest answer. This may make the suicidal person shut down and stay quiet.
DO NOT attempt to shame the person about their feelings or say something like “it will get better”. Instead, tell them you understand and offer them hope by saying that help is available for their feelings and offer them support.
DO NOT taunt them or dare them “to do it”. This approach has had fatal consequences.
DO NOT be judgmental. This is not the time to debate the morality of suicide. Don’t give them a lecture on the value of life.
DO NOT allow them to swear you to secrecy. Seek support and help. There are agencies that specialize in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. Also seek the help of family, friends, medical personnel or clergy.
DO offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance. It may make the person feel as if you don't understand.
DO take action. Remove easy methods that they may use to carry out the act such as firearms, rope, excess medications, etc.
DO NOT leave an actively suicidal person alone unless you need to run for help. If a person is in the act, do not talk – ACT. Call 911.
Connelly Law Offices offers a training on preventing senior suicides. This training is based on the QPR – Question, Persuade and Refer – method and is a non-clinical presentation for the lay person. This course is presented by Don Drake, one of our trainers, who worked with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health presenting QPR to teachers, therapist and others.
This training is available free of charge and is appropriate for senior centers, nursing homes, churches or any organization that works with seniors and their families. To schedule a presentation, call Connelly Law Offices at 855-724-9400 and ask for Don Drake or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have also made available a Senior Suicide Fact Sheet that includes important information about the signs of a suicidal person and actions that can be taken. This sheet can be downloaded by clicking on the document below:
“What’s important here”, says Attorney Connelly, “is that there are a number of actions that can be taken to prevent suicide in the elderly. That includes reaching out to those who are isolated, in pain, have a mental illness or experiencing a recent loss. If those of us who provide services to the elderly work together and show them the compassion, support and care they deserve, we can identify the problem early and lives can be saved”.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.