Suicide can strike any person at any age. However, within the suicide epidemic, there is another lesser known epidemic, which is elderly suicide. According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide rates in the United States have skyrocketed by over 30 percent in the last 19 years. In 2016, over 45,000 Americans died by suicide. While suicide affects all age populations, senior citizens are at the highest risk. Research from the Suicide Prevention Center shows that persons 65 or older have an elevated risk, but those over 85 have the highest risk among all adults.
In the elderly, major life changes can cause suicidal thoughts. The death of a loved one, such as spouse or close friend, can be a trigger. Prolonged physical illness and pain can be a cause. Feeling like a burden on family is another risk as well as retirement, which is a prominent shift in routine. Senior citizens who live alone are at an especially high risk along. The question is: why are senior citizens at such a dangerous risk of ending their own life and what can be done?
One theory, according to PsychCentral, is that today’s senior citizens grew up during a time when mental illness had a much more negative connotation and treatment for mental illness was harsh and extremely invasive. Because of these reasons, it is thought that when today’s senior citizens were much younger, they were hesitant on seeking help for mental illness due to fear of being shamed by their loved ones or they were afraid of what treatment would entail for them. Another theory, given by Dr. Jo Anne Sirey, a professor at Cornell’s Department of Psychiatry says, “Depression is often not well detected [in senior citizens], it’s mistaken as a natural part of aging and depression is never a natural part of aging. Sometimes, it’s hard for the older adult themselves to detect the depression, they too may attribute it to health or physical limitations.” A third theory is that senior citizens are limited in addressing their mental health needs. Some senior citizens require a caregiver and the caregiver might not notice depression in the patient. Additionally, independent senior citizens sometimes have a capped income and simply cannot afford both mental health treatment on top of physical health needs. There is no right answer to
why senior citizens are in danger of committing suicide. It is important to recognize signs of suicide in senior citizens to address their needs.
General signs of a person contemplating suicide include changes in eating, changes
in sleep, lack of energy, trouble focusing, crying episodes, loss of interest in leisure time and hobbies, and an expression of overall not feeling like themselves. Signs vary from person to person. If something feels off about a loved one, it is wise to ask the loved one if help is desired without passing judgment. Senior citizens may fear being stigmatized by their families and loved ones, but with proper care and a strong support system, they will be more open to receiving help, which can in turn prevent suicide.