Getting older isn’t always easy. Elderly individuals, particularly men, face a higher risk of suicide compared to the general population. Loneliness, isolation, and growing health concerns can all lead to thoughts of suicide among the elderly. With the number of older individuals on the rise in the U.S., we’re connecting the dots between ageism and suicide. Discriminating against older individuals based on their age can increase their risk of suicide. Let’s take a closer look at how ageism contributes to suicide and what you can do to help prevent it.
Suicide Rates on the Rise
The suicide rate in the U.S. has been on the rise for over two decades now, with 47,000 successful suicides in 2017 alone. Nearly every state in the nation has seen a rise in the number of suicides, with nearly half reporting an increase of nearly 30%. Of the 47,000 individuals that took their own lives in 2017, 8,500 were over the age of 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Men over the age of 65 face the highest risk of suicide in the country, while those above the age of 85, regardless of gender, are the second-most likely to die by their own means. As you can see, the risk of suicide traditionally rises as we age.
Seniors are also more likely to be successful when attempting suicide compared to the general population. Studies show one out of every four seniors die from attempted suicide, compared to just one out of every 200 attempts for younger adults. While it remains unclear why seniors tend to be more successful than their younger counterparts when it comes to this, it is believed that seniors are often more susceptible to self-harm. It is also believed that seniors are typically in a rational state of mind when they decide to take their own lives.
How Ageism Can Lead to Thoughts of Suicide
The elderly population tends to be more prone to suicide than younger adults for a variety of reasons, including:
- Loneliness: Their spouse and friends may have passed away or their children may have moved far from home.
- Grief: The sudden loss of a spouse or loved one can lead to depression, grief, and anxiety.
- Mounting health concerns: The presence of chronic conditions can affect a person’s quality of life. They may have to depend on loved ones or caregivers when completing routine tasks.
- Lack of access to mental health services: Older generations may have less experience when it comes to managing their mental health, including symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Helplessness: Older individuals may feel the only way to escape their pain or loneliness is to take their own lives.
Last but not least, older adults may feel as if they no longer serve a purpose in society. They may face discrimination at home, work, among family members, within the local community, or see negative depictions of elderly people in the media.
While we tend to think of older individuals as being revered in the community, this isn’t always the case. A recent study of 57 developed and developing countries shows that levels of respect for older people was low across all income groups. Even if older individuals can retain their independence and health as they age, the rest of society may see them as weak or vulnerable.
Preventing Suicide Among the Elderly
When it comes to preventing suicide among the elderly, one of the best things you can do is treat older individuals with respect. Avoid talking down to older individuals, including patients, or assuming they can no longer get around on their own.
Encourage older patients to focus on bettering their mental health. If a patient is suffering from depression or anxiety, refer them to a mental health center, psychiatrist, psychologist, or a support group in the community. No one should have to live with depression and anxiety, especially when treatment options are readily available.
You should also be on the lookout for any warning signs that an older individual is thinking of taking their own life, such as:
- General feelings of depression, helplessness, or extreme loneliness
- Suddenly revising their will or making last-minute preparations
- Complaining of being a burden
- Stockpiling medication, buying firearms, or investing in other potential hazards to their health
- Lack of interest in current events, family matters, or hobbies they once enjoyed
- Increasing their use of drugs or alcohol
- Withdrawing from social activities
- Expressing their goodbyes as if they may never see you again
Keep these warning signs in mind as you care for and spend time with elderly individuals. Even a small change in behavior could be a sign of potential suicide.
The elderly population is rapidly increasing. There were 47.8 million people over the age of 65 in the U.S. in 2015. By 2060, that number is projected to reach 98.2 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As the baby boomers continue to retire, suicide among the elderly will likely be an issue for years to come.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.