Every 90 minutes, an elderly American commits suicide. Most are white males, over the age of 85. Among the young, there is about one suicide for every 100 to 200 attempts. In adults over age 65, there is approximately one suicide for every four attempts. Although older Americans attempt suicide less often than other groups, they are successful more often.
Reasons for suicide
Among the elderly, common risks for suicide include:
- The death of a loved one.
- Physical illness, persistent pain or fear of a prolonged illness.
- Isolation and loneliness.
- Changes in roles, such as retirement.
Suicide rates in the elderly are highest among the divorced and widowed. About 20 percent of elderly Americans who commit suicide have visited a physician within 24 hours of the act. Another 41 percent have visited a doctor within one week and 75 percent within one month. Although the elderly make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for approximately 18 percent of suicides each year.
About 7 million elderly Americans suffer from some form of depression, which interferes with their ability to function. It's important to remember that depression is not a normal part of aging.
Depression often occurs with major illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer or Parkinson's disease. Although treatment is available, it is not always offered. This is because depression is often viewed as a normal consequence of other health problems.
Combining antidepressants with psychotherapy is the most effective method for treating depression. In one study, approximately 80 percent of depressed older adults recovered with this treatment.
Conditions that increase the risk of suicide:
- Death or terminal illness of a loved one.
- Divorce or separation.
- Health problems.
- Loss of job.
- Substance abuse.
Warning signs of suicide:
- Depression that quickly disappears. May indicate that your loved one has finalized a suicide plan.
- Pain that cannot be controlled.
- Hopelessness. Feeling that things will never improve.
- Feelings of worthlessness.
- Withdrawal, anger, irritability, sadness.
- Declining performance at work.
- Loss of interest in things that were once enjoyable.
- Social isolation.
- Poor hygiene.
- Change in sleeping or eating habits.
- Ignoring medical instructions.
- Talking about suicide.
- Developing a suicide plan.
- Giving away favorite possessions.
- Saying good-bye inappropriately.
- Making statements like, "I'm going away," or "I just can't go on."
Helping to prevent suicide
Take any one of these signs seriously. If a loved one expresses suicidal feelings, he needs immediate attention. Seventy-five percent of all suicides happen after the person makes statements about suicide.
How to help:
- Listen. Let your loved one express her feelings. You don't need to say much as long as you show your concern. Arguing and giving advice won't help.
- Ask. Ask your loved one if he is having thoughts of suicide. If he is, find out if he has made a plan.
- Don't leave. If your loved one is suicidal, don't leave her alone.
- Seek professional help. Let your friend or loved one know you care and are there for him. Help him receive immediate help.
Most people have suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives, but fewer than 2 percent of deaths are the result of suicide. Make sure your loved one knows that these feelings will pass in time, with the love and support of friends and family.
Created on 05/29/2007
Updated on 06/03/2008
- National Institute of Mental Health. Older adults: depression and suicide facts. Accessed April 25, 2007.
- National Strategy for Suicide Prevention. At a glance - suicide among the elderly. Accessed April 25, 2007.