Seniors and Suicide: Tips for Supporting Your Loved One

senior suicide prevention

People often ask what’s been the biggest surprise in serving seniors, and I tell them it’s the number of seniors who commit suicide. When I think of my golden years, I imagine traveling, learning new hobbies and spending time with family and friends. But for some, the challenges that accompany aging are overwhelming, which can lead to depression and suicide. Economic changes, the loss of a spouse, physical limitations, medical issues, loneliness and isolation all contribute to a senior’s mental health. When one worsens, it’s easy to understand how someone can become depressed.

What’s even more surprising is how common this issue is. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014 almost 27 of every 100,000 men ages 65 to 74 in the U.S. committed suicide; for men 75 and older, the number reached almost 39. Suicide rates among women in those age groups were about 6 and 4 of every 100,000, respectively. Of course, none of those figures include unsuccessful suicide attempts or reflect the emotional pain of suicidal thoughts.

No one wants to think about such sad things. But this week is National Suicide Prevention Week and I want to bring awareness to the issue and talk about what you can do if you see signs of depression or suicide in someone you love. This year’s theme, “Take a minute, change a life,” encourages concerned people to be aware of others who may be struggling, to check in with them, listen and offer gentle and nonjudgmental words of support.

Here is what you can do to support seniors you love:

  • Find what gives them socialization and purpose and arrange for more of that in their daily lives. Ensure your loved one has plenty of opportunity to interact with other seniors, whether through assisted living, social clubs or informal get-togethers. Otherwise, they may become isolated and lose themselves in negative thoughts due to lost loved ones, physical ailments and other limitations.
  • Get your loved one talking about whatever they want to talk about. An unrushed, heartfelt conversation can put life in perspective and be surprisingly therapeutic.
  • Help them stay connected with friends and family by teaching them how to use a computer or tablet and introducing them to email and social media. If your loved one lives alone, encourage them to consider the benefits of communal living offered through senior living or assisted living communities. Many people are relieved to find a greater sense of belonging and improved socializing options once they move close to other seniors. Often, people think they’re doing a loved one a favor by endorsing them staying in their own homes alone, but I think that’s a misperception. Seniors need to talk to people their own age with whom they have something in common, not just to their family members who stop by for an hour a day.
  • Ensure they feel loved and included through frequent outings, transportation to events, letters, phone calls, photos of grandchildren or pets, flowers, favorite foods and other tokens of affection.
  • If you’re worried that your loved one is depressed, make an appointment with a mental health professional.
  • If you’re fearful that suicide is a possibility, openly discuss that fear with your loved one. Avoidance because you think the topic is taboo helps no one, while acknowledging it may spur someone you love to accept medical attention.
  • Remove firearms and unneeded medications from your loved one’s home. Men most frequently commit suicide with guns while women overdose.
  • Ensure your loved one has access to a suicide hotline for times you may not be present.

How can you know if your loved one is contemplating suicide?

Beside statements of intent, common suicide indicators identified by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy include:

  • Loss of interest in normally enjoyable things or activities
  • Decrease in social interaction, self-care and/or grooming
  • Disregard of medical regimens, prescriptions, diets, etc.
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or worthlessness 
  • Activities representing closure, such as changing wills, putting affairs in order or giving away possessions
  • Stockpiling medications or suddenly obtaining other items that could be lethal
  • Statements or actions pointing to a preoccupation with death, lack of concern about personal safety or a lack of future needs.

The AAMFT also points to a greater risk of suicide if a person just lost or is about to lose a loved one; is divorced; is physically ill, disabled or in pain; is financially troubled; is misusing alcohol; or is or has been subject to clinical depression or another psychiatric disorder. Loneliness isn’t always a factor, since even people who don’t feel socially isolated commit suicide. Communicating and visiting with your loved one often will give you the best sense of their mental wellbeing.  

I encourage you to “Take a minute, change a life” this week. Check in on your loved one and see how they are. Take a puzzle and visit your mom or watch a game on television with your grandpa. These little moments not only help your loved one stay engaged, but they can help you gauge their level of happiness.

If you’re concerned about your loved one or are interested in learning more about suicide prevention, talk to your physician or get resources from the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.

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