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Late Life Suicide in a Rapidly Aging Country

Late Life Suicide in a Rapidly Aging Country - What We Need to Know

By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

Medicaid Planning Rhode Island
Attorney RJ Connelly III

"In late November, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed provisional data stating that the number of suicides in the United States reached a distressing new high in 2022," stated professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "The report highlighted that the increase was most notable among women aged 24 years and above, and the number of deaths by suicide in the country has risen by 3% from the previous year's figures, with almost 49,500 people losing their lives."

This is an increase from the nearly 48,200 deaths recorded in 2021. The CDC researchers have declared that this is the highest number of suicides ever recorded in the United States, which is a cause for concern. According to a report, the data presented on suicides is currently preliminary, which means that the final number of suicides in 2022 is expected to be higher as additional death certificates with pending causes of death are determined to be suicides. Interestingly, the report did not provide any explanation, but it indicated that middle-aged and older women appeared to be hit hardest by the rise in suicides.

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Suicide by older women increased in 2022

"While men are still more likely to die by suicide than women, the percentage increase in suicides among women in 2022 was much steeper than what was seen among men, with a 4% increase among women compared to a 1% increase among men," Attorney Connelly stated. "In absolute numbers, 39,255 males died by suicide, whereas 10,194 females died by suicide in 2022."

According to the report, suicide rates among younger women and teenage girls have decreased, but there has been a concerning increase of 7% among women aged 25 to 34 years. Moreover, the rates of suicide have risen between 2% to 9% for women aged over 35 years. These statistics suggest that suicide is becoming a more pressing issue for women in their late twenties and beyond.

"After reviewing the data, it becomes evident that issues of aging are a contributing factor to suicide in both older men and women," stated Attorney Connelly. "However, it would be an oversimplification to attribute the issue solely to risk factors such as loneliness, feelings of abandonment, and loss of meaning in life. The current situation is highly unacceptable, especially considering the myriad of intervention and training programs that mental health professionals have developed in recent years to address the issue of suicide. Despite these efforts, it seems that we are still missing something crucial. It is imperative that we identify and address the gaps in our current strategies in order to more effectively combat the increase in suicides among this age group."

The Reality

One of the sad realities of our society is that seniors, who often suffer from depression and loneliness, have a disproportionately high rate of suicide. According to the CDC, there are 15 suicides per 100,000 people over the age of 65 in the United States, which is higher than the overall national suicide rate of 12 per 100,000 people.

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The numbers will increase

While the number of suicides among seniors may seem small statistically, it could increase significantly given the aging baby boomer population and the growth of the senior demographic. This is a serious problem that requires immediate attention. Several experts in the field of geriatric mental health agree with this observation.

The CDC states that even if the rates of suicide among seniors remain stagnant, more than 11,000 individuals aged 65 and above will take their own lives. This is an alarming number that highlights the need for more resources and services to support the mental health and well-being of seniors.

And here is another sad reality: the actual number of cases may be significantly higher than reported. Mental health professionals studying some of the "suspect deaths" of seniors suggest that the numbers of suicide cases may be underreported by as much as 40%. This is because many deaths are attributed to "silent suicide," such as overdoses, self-starvation, dehydration, and other "accidents."

"The term 'silent suicide' refers to the intent to kill oneself by non-violent means through self-starvation or non-compliance with medical orders, such as not taking medications as prescribed," Attorney Connelly points out. "This type of suicide often goes unrecognized because of an underlying depression that exists and the personal belief systems of the family and medical professionals who feel that such an act could not occur with the individual in question who appears to be "well balanced." However, to the individual engaging in the act, it is not a choice based on mental health struggles, but rather a rational one as they consider the act an end-of-life decision. It should also be distinguished from a person with a terminal illness who refuses further treatment in order not to prolong the act of dying."

Risk Factors

There are various factors that can increase the risk of suicide among the elderly population. Being a white male and going through a divorce are considered high-risk characteristics. However, experts state that the most significant risk factor is having a major psychiatric disorder, such as major depression, which is often linked with suicide.

Attorney Connelly, who has extensive experience working with seniors and their families, is aware of the impact of depression on seniors. He often encounters seniors and their families following a medical emergency and understands the challenges they face.

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Serious illness can trigger depression

“Receiving a complex illness diagnosis, such as cancer, Parkinson's, diabetes, or dementia, can be especially difficult for older individuals," said Attorney Connelly. "The weight of such a diagnosis can trigger depression and increase the risk of suicidal thoughts, and this risk is more common than most people realize." While depression is a significant factor in senior suicide, it is not the only one.

Psychiatrist Dr. Alexandre Dombrovski from the University of Pittsburgh suggests that misuse of alcohol or prescription drugs, recent medical diagnoses, family conflicts, financial problems, physical disability, chronic pain, and grief can all contribute to the risk of suicide in seniors. It is often the combination of these issues with depression that leads individuals to feel trapped and perceive suicide as the only solution.

"Our society has deeply ingrained certain beliefs and attitudes that can significantly contribute to suicidal tendencies, and our seniors, in particular, may experience feelings of helplessness and a loss of control over their lives, which can lead to depression and a lack of self-worth," said Attorney Connelly. "Additionally, the loss of their family role and a perceived lack of dignity can further exacerbate these feelings. The misuse of alcohol and drugs among seniors can also dramatically increase the risk of suicide. Such societal expectations and gender roles, which have been instilled since a young age, may also contribute to the higher rate of suicide in older men."

“Even in the age of political correctness, older men are still conditioned to withhold their feelings," he continued. "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."

Financial Scams and Suicide

As stated previously, seniors face various losses as they age, but becoming a victim of a financial scam only adds to the belief of some seniors that they can no longer take care of themselves. For some, these events could be the final blow.

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Being a victim of a scam can cause extreme reactions

"It's unfortunate that scammers can be found in every corner of the internet and community, waiting to prey on unsuspecting seniors and take away their hard-earned money. As a firm, we regularly assist seniors and their families in dealing with financial abuse committed by these fraudulent individuals online," 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 depression and anxiety, and in some cases, even worse.”

And it appears that the “even worse” that Attorney Connelly is alluding to is happening around the country as victimized seniors are taking their lives after falling for a scam. Here are a few examples:

  • In Texas, a woman says her 82-year-old grandmother, who lost all of her money to a con artist, was so devastated by the scam, that 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 her money to scammers and later had to borrow money from family members, took out all 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'. 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 his grandson would go to jail if he didn't wire them money. "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 $3 million. Poland, who was married with two grown children and two granddaughters, suffered from Alzheimer's and dementia.

Suicide Does Not Discriminate

We also mentioned earlier that suicide affects older, white divorced males more than any other group, but the truth is that suicide does not discriminate. People of all genders, ages, and ethnicities can be at risk. 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. Below, we list information that everyone should be aware of.

Risk Factors for Suicide

  1. Depression, or other mental illnesses.

  2. Alcohol or drug abuse or addiction.

  3. Chronic pain.

  4. A history of suicidal thoughts or attempts.

  5. A family history of mental illness or substance abuse.

  6. Family violence includes physical or sexual abuse.

  7. Having guns or other firearms in the home.

  8. Recently released from prison.

  9. Being exposed to the suicidal behaviors of others – such as family members, peers, or celebrities.

Signs of Depression in Seniors

  1. Fatigue or apathy (that cannot be linked to a medication or health condition).

  2. Change in eating habits or sleeping habits.

  3. Crying for no apparent reason.

  4. Inability to express joy or have fun.

  5. Changes in personality – “They’re just not themselves”.

  6. Withdrawal from family and friends.

  7. Loss of interest in hobbies.

  8. Personal appearance and hygiene deteriorate.

A Suicidal Individual May Also:

  1. Talk about or be preoccupied with death.

  2. Begin giving away prized possessions.

  3. Take unnecessary risks.

  4. Increase the use of drugs, alcohol, or other medications.

  5. Fail to take prescribed medicines or follow required diets.

  6. Skip medical appointments.

  7. Acquire a weapon.

Precipitating Factors for a Suicide Attempt:

  • The recent death of a loved one or close friend.

  • A prolonged physical illness.

  • Uncontrollable pain.

  • Fear that a chronic illness will damage the family emotionally and financially.

  • Social isolation and loneliness.

  • Significant changes in social roles like retirement.

So, What Do I Do?

Many people have some of these risk factors but do not attempt suicide. It is important to note that suicide is not a normal stress response. Suicidal thoughts or actions are a sign of extreme distress, not a harmless bid for attention, and should not be ignored. Below 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.

  1. DO learn what the signs of depression and the behaviors of a suicidal person are.

  2. 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.

  3. DO NOT act shocked if you receive an honest answer. This may make the suicidal person shut down and stay quiet.

  4. 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.

  5. DO NOT taunt them or dare them “to do it.” This approach has had fatal consequences.

  6. 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.

  7. DO NOT allow them to swear you to secrecy. Please 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.

  8. 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.

  9. DO take action. Remove easy methods that they may use to carry out the act, such as firearms, rope, excess medications, etc.

  10. 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.

"Deaths from suicide have risen almost steadily during the 21st century, with increases experienced for both males and females and across races and age groups," said Attorney Connelly. "In 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a call to action on a national strategy for suicide prevention. A universal dialing code was launched in July 2022 to broaden access to lifesaving suicide prevention and crisis services. Dialing 988 connects those in crisis, as well as friends, family, and caregivers, directly to the Suicide and Crisis Hotline. Help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

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Please note that the information provided in this blog is not intended to and should not be construed as legal, financial, or medical advice. The content, materials, and information presented in this blog are solely for general informational purposes and may not be the most up-to-date information available regarding legal, financial, or medical matters. This blog may also contain links to other third-party websites that are included for the convenience of the reader or user. Please note that Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. does not necessarily recommend or endorse the contents of such third-party sites. If you have any particular legal matters, financial concerns, or medical issues, we strongly advise you to consult your attorney, professional fiduciary advisor, or medical provider.

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