Carol Cummings, RN, BSN, Expert on Aging Well

Contact Carol
25 August 2020

In these uncertain times, suicide rates have been on the rise across the country, and that disturbing trend has hit the nation's seniors especially hard. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those 65 and older account for nearly 20 percent of suicides annually in the United States. In fact, the CDC says men who are 65 and older face the highest risk of suicide, while adults 85 and older, regardless of gender, are the second most likely age group to die from suicide.

The CDC’s comprehensive study of suicides from 1999 to 2016 found the rising suicide rates among seniors can be attributed to several key factors. These include increasing financial and housing pressures, life crisis, chronic health conditions and relationship issues. Another factor is the dramatic increase in substance abuse among the elderly.

While the statistics are discouraging, our September edition of Brookdale’s Optimum Life Continuing Education series, entitled Suicide and the Elderly: Prevention Can Be Possible, focuses on potential solutions to elderly suicide. We explore the warning signs for elderly suicide, effective prevention strategies and the five action steps to assist someone in emotional pain. 

Our guest is Doris Fischer-Sanchez, a senior clinical and risk management expert. Doris has more than 30 years of experience in healthcare. She’s a board certified psychiatric and family nurse practitioner with extensive experience both the inpatient and outpatient settings focusing on critical care, psychiatry, private practice, ambulatory and long- term care. During our conversation, Doris outlined the warning signs for elderly suicide:

  • Loss of interest in things or activities that are usually found enjoyable.
  • Cutting back social interaction, self-care, and grooming, effects of social isolation.
  • Feeling hopeless and/or worthless.
  • Putting affairs in order, giving things away, or making changes in wills.
  • A preoccupation with death or a lack of concern about personal safety.
  • Remarks such as "This is the last time that you'll see me" or "I won't be needing anymore appointments" should raise concern.
  • The most significant indicator is an expression of suicidal intent.

Effective suicide mitigation strategies center on identifying the warning signs of elderly suicide and proactively addressing the underlying conditions that drive a sense of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. These prevention strategies are often centered on these three areas:

  1. Health care and emotional health care:
    • Treatment for depression and other mental health issues.
    • Substance abuse treatment.
    • Treatment for physical illnesses and disabilities.
    • Promotion of health and wellness.
  2. Living Situation:
    • Positive, pleasant, and homelike physical environment.
    • Accessible environment for residents with physical disabilities.
    • Removing access to means of suicide.
  3. Relationships:
    • Connections with family, friends, and the larger community.
    • Engagement in purposeful activities, including recreational, social, spiritual, intellectual, and creative—designed around the likes and needs of the residents.
    • Strong connections with staff and volunteers.

Many people often aren’t sure what they can do when they recognize an elderly person they care about may be at risk for suicide. While elderly suicide involves a complex set of factors and emotions, Doris says there are five key action steps you can take to help someone experience emotional pain. These include:

  1. Follow up – if you don’t see progress, you should seek the help of counselors and mental health professionals who have the expertise to intervene with the best mitigation strategies for the specific, unique situation.
  2. Help them connect – helping them connect to family, friends and mental health professionals is essential to finding a healthy balance to deal with stress and difficult circumstances. Isolation is often a trigger for suicidal intentions.
  3. Be There – your caring presence is essential to reinforce to the senior that they are not alone and are surrounded by a network of people who care and want to provide the emotional support they need.
  4. Keep them safe – they need a physical and social environment that promotes emotional health and well-being. Ensure that the senior’s access to methods of self-harm is limited.
  5. Ask – simply addressing your concerns with the person and really listening can lead to an open dialogue that is often the most important step toward healing.

If you’d like to learn more about the warning signs and prevention strategies for elderly suicide, you can attend a session of: Suicide and the Elderly: Prevention Can Be Possible. Just send a request to register for the session by visiting our Optimum Life Continuing Education page.

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