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All attention lately has been about gun violence in schools and shopping centers. But death by gunshot wounds is the most common method used by elderly men who commit suicide. Do you know if your elderly loved one has a gun? Or, if you are elderly, do you own a gun?
Suicide rates in elderly white men are around 48.7 per 100,000 while rates for the general population is 11.1 per 100,000. The elderly commit suicide for different reasons than younger victims. For all groups depression tops the list as the main risk factor, which includes the elderly. But seniors have risk factors that are not seen in other groups.
The elderly experience a lifetime of loss and disappointment. By the time they reach their 70s and 80s, prime time for suicide attempts, they have suffered through loss of a spouse (possibly), friends, finances, and health. All of these add up. For a group who is not accustomed to asking for help or wanting to lose their independence, suicide becomes a way out. Add to those problems social isolation, which is common in the elderly, and it can tip them over the edge.
Another feature not seen in young suicide victims is the impact that cognitive decline, or memory loss, has on the elderly. Many elderly realize when they start to lose their memory. Since there is no cure for memory loss, some may resort to suicide because they know their memory will not improve. Additionally, cognitive decline alters the ability to reason which may lead to harmful behaviors such as suicide. Suicide may be a way to avoid being a burden on the family as well.
Suicide feels like an elusive killer that steals your loved one away like a thief in the night. Families are taken by surprise when a loved one commits suicide. How could that happen? The suicide victim typically does not alert others to his plans. But there are ways to identify someone who is at risk and potentially stop a suicide. It is a matter of being in tune with the factors that place someone at risk.
What if you suspect someone you love may be suicidal?
It’s simple but scary: Ask them. Contrary to what many believe, confronting a suicidal person does not lead to suicide. Actually, just the opposite occurs. It stops them in their tracks and makes them realize someone is there to help them. Here are the key questions to ask:
- Do You Think About Hurting Yourself or Killing Yourself?
- Have You Tried to Hurt or Kill Yourself?
- Are There Weapons in the House?
A lot of suicides can be prevented just by being aware and showing the person you know and care enough to ask.
What If He Says “Yes” to the Questions? What Then?
- If the answer is “yes” ask “What has you feeling down? (or depressed or distressed?)” Offer some examples: “Is it because your wife died? or “Because your money is gone?” The questions will encourage the person to talk about what is troubling them and take the focus away from the act of suicide.
- Next tell the person “Let me help you.” Offer to take the person to the hospital, call their doctor or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
- Remove drugs (if feasible) and alcohol from the house.
- Remove guns. By removing guns, you make it harder for the person to commit suicide. He will be less likely to do it on impulse if there are no guns available.
The elderly is at risk for suicide because of their unique problems that set the stage for depression and hopelessness. Anyone with an elderly relative or friend should assess their risk factors and consider the possibility of suicide. To the elderly who are alone, reach out to someone. Even if you believe you have no one in your life, you can always call the Lifeline number. There is someone who can help, 24/7.
Elderly Suicide: The Risks, Detection and How to Help. Aging in Place, updated August 2019. Retrieved August 20, 2019. https://www.aginginplace.org/elderly-suicide-risks-detection-how-to-help/
Ismael Conejero,1,2 Emilie Olié,1,2,3 Philippe Courtet,1,2,3 and Raffaella Calati1,2,3, . Suicide in older adults: current perspectives. Clinical Interventions in Aging, April 2018. Retrieved August 20, 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5916258/