For some, senior years are filled with large families, a glowing support system and a world of opportunity. For others, the later years include struggles commonly faced by many older adults, including the loss of family and friends, debilitating sickness or disease, and a loss of independence and the isolation that can ensue.
These types of experiences can be both difficult and painful, and can lead to feelings of anxiety, desperation, sadness or loneliness. In fact, depression is the most common mental health problem in older adults. It is important to remember however, that while older adults commonly experience depression, it is not a normal part of the aging process, and is a serious risk factor for suicide.
Suicide in the Aging Population
In an interview with CTV, Dr. Leon Kagan, the director of Geriatric Psychiatry at the University of Alberta, suggests that isolation is a key factor in driving thoughts of suicide among seniors. “These older individuals are having everything taken away from them in terms of their work, their health, their families and finding their role diminished…. for some of them, taking their own life seems like it might be the only option that they have.”
The truth is that over 10 seniors (60+) die by suicide every week in Canada and approximately 1,000 older adults are admitted to Canadian hospitals each year as a consequence of intentional self-harm. Seniors are, in fact, one of the most at risk demographic when it comes to suicide. Of that demographic, men over the age of 65+ are the most at risk. The magnitude of death by suicide among older adults is a fact that is underreported and that needs to be discussed much more openly so that caregivers and families of older adults can better understand the warning signs of depression and suicide, and offer up the help they need.
Warning Signs of Suicide in Older Adults
The events that trigger suicidal thoughts in seniors are unique and can differ from those that might lead to depression or mental health struggles within a younger demographic.
Consequently, it’s important to know what warning signs to look for in older adults at risk of depression or suicide. It’s important to note that while sadness is the most obvious system of depression, depression can actually exist without sadness.
If an older adult is exuding the following traits, they might be at risk for depression or suicide:
- Fatigue (difficulty falling asleep)
- Loss of interest in hobbies or pleasurable pastimes
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Loss of self-worth
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Fixation on death
Other risk factors that can lead to thoughts of depression or suicide include the recent passing of a loved one and lingering health problems that could cause someone to want to end their own life.
How to Support an Older Adult at Risk
If you know someone experiencing thoughts of suicide or depression, it’s important to let them know that they are not alone. Let them know that there are people who want to help, and that with the right support, they can find hope again. In addition to having an open conversation about depression and suicide, here are a few things you can do to help:
Suggest a change in routine
Promote involvement in activities within their community. Isolation can lead to depression. Introducing at risk adults to new activities can help them feel like they have purpose and have something to look forward to on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
Present options for counselling and therapy
Some people need to talk regularly about how they feel in order to shift perspectives. If they seem open to the idea of speaking with someone, help them out by doing the research and, if possible, offering to drive them to and from appointments.
Optimize family time
When someone knows that others need them to live, it can discourage them from taking their own life. Try to organize family time whenever possible and surround the person at risk with love, affection and reassurance that they are not alone.
Sources additional information of how best to support an older adult at risk of suicide:
- Canadian Coalition for Senior’s Mental Health
- Late Life Suicide Prevention Toolkit: Life Saving Tools for Care Providers
- Shopper’s Drug Mart in partnership with the Canadian Coalition for Seniors’ Mental Health: Shopper’s Drug Mart offers articles surrounding important topics relevant to those experiencing Suicide Grief, Depression in Older Adults, and provides information about the Prevention of Suicide in Older Adults.