Older Adults: A Secret Suicide Risk

When you think of a suicide victim, what comes to mind?

We posed this question to Alice Woodard, an elder care coordinator at Kimbrough Law, a Life Care Planning Law Firm with offices in northeast Georgia. According to Alice, senior citizens are one of the groups most at risk. Suicides among seniors account for 18 percent of all suicides reported in the U.S., with white males over the age of 85 facing the highest risk. And that’s just the suicides that are reported. “Some experts claim that senior suicides are under-reported by 40 percent,” Alice notes. “Car accidents, self-dehydration, or self-starvation are often actually suicides in disguise.”

What can cause a senior to want his or her life to end? It can be many things. For some, it’s the loss of a relationship through death or divorce. For others, it’s social isolation and loneliness. For some, it’s losing independence and not knowing where to live. And for many, it’s a diagnosis. “Four health conditions tend to lead people to suicide,” says Alice, “they are traumatic brain injuries, sleep disorders, HIV, and Parkinson's.”

How do you know if a senior in your life is at risk? Watch for:

  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Loss of interest in people, things or activities that they usually find enjoyable
  • A change in self-care or grooming
  • Putting affairs in order, giving away prized possessions or making changes to a will
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Feelings of hopelessness or lack or purpose
  • Anger or other mood changes.

If you observe one or more of these signs, what should you do? Alice offers these tips:

  • Listen. Have a conversation, ask non-judgmental questions, and then let them talk. “Many seniors don't feel valuable, listened to, or important,” Alice notes. “Sometimes they can feel as if they are inconsequential to everything and everyone around them.”
  • Connect. If social isolation is a problem, help your loved one find a support group or activity group. “Many churches have groups for seniors that can help them find friends,” says Alice. “Assisted living facilities can help make connecting a little bit easier.”
  • Protect. Limit your loved one’s access to substances or items that might be used to attempt suicide, such as drugs or firearms.
  • Ask. Alice recommends asking a loved one directly if he or she has ever contemplated suicide. “People are afraid to ask questions like these because they’re concerned that they’ll plant a seed that the senior will later act on,” she advises. “What you’re really doing by asking is giving them an outlet to open up and talk.”
  • Consult. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. Is depression a side effect of any of the medications that they are on? Can the person be screened for depression?
  • Ask for help. Contact a suicide prevention resource such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) or The Institute on Aging at (800-971-0016), which offers the only accredited crisis line in the country for people age 60 or older.

According to Alice, seniors don’t commit suicide on impulse. “Most contemplate it for a very long time before acting,” she adds. “If we’re tuned in to our loved ones and how they are reacting, it gives us an opportunity to intervene.”