Senior Suicide - Know The Facts and Be Aware

In last week’s blog about finding a sense of purpose, we discussed the concerns of suicides among seniors, citing the fact that the National Institute of Mental Health considers depression in people 65 and older to be a major public health problem. Add to that, the ongoing pandemic which is likely to result in a confluence of risk factors for suicidal behaviors, and we may be looking at a problem larger than we initially expected with this age group.

Before the onset of COVID-19, living alone, loneliness, and social isolation were known to be among the risk factors for suicide among seniors. The government-imposed policies of quarantine and social distancing added to the adverse effects of loneliness even for those residing in assisted living as they were unable to have any face-to-face contact with family members or other loved ones. Add to this preexisting mental illness, health problems and increased use of alcohol and it's evident there is a problem.

Numbers from the CDC show 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 “suspicious deaths” of seniors feel the numbers may be underreported 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. According to professionals, the strongest risk factor is having a major psychiatric disorder such as 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 Alzheimer's disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, diabetes, other dementias, etc. can trigger depression and set the stage for thoughts of suicide. 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.

“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 losing 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”. Attorney Connelly 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 Attorney Connelly.

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 society can be the precursor to a depressive episode. Becoming a victim of a financial scam only reinforces for some seniors that they can no longer care for themselves. And for some, these types of events could be the last straw.

“Sadly, scammers are 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 regularly 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."

And it appears that the “even worse” that Attorney Connelly alluded to is happening regularly 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 $3 million. 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

  • Chronic pain

  • 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

  • Uncontrollable pain

  • 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 stress response. 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 Dos 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 are of a suicidal person

  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. Seek support and help. Some agencies 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.

“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."

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