Suicide rate among elderly rises as people live longer

By: Dr. Ivan Boksay

Broadcasted on BICNews 6 December 1997

NEW YORK (AP) - At their best, the senior years are a time to enjoy family, travel and the rewards of a lifetime of hard work.

But sometimes, instead of joy, these years are accompanied by severe physical and emotional distress and a sense of hopelessness that this anguish will never be relieved.

Too often, suicide is seen as the solution. The suicide rate among the elderly is increasing as more people in the United States live past the age of 75. A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that, between 1980 and 1995, suicide among people 75 and older rose 42 percent.

This tragic situation can change. Most elderly people don't really want to die. Family, friends and health providers can step in to help prevent the suicide of elderly people.

Suicide is usually the result of a combination of factors. Although taking one's life can be an acute, impulsive act at any age, suicide among the elderly is more often a drastic solution that has been contemplated for some time.

Life events that can trigger suicidal thoughts often involve a loss, such as the death of a spouse or another loved one, even a pet. Mourning can last up to two years; during bereavement, an elderly person is susceptible to suicide.

Change, in the form of retirement, moving to a nursing home or losing the ability to drive or walk also can be a trigger. Look for clues in an elderly person's conversations and actions which may signal suicidal thoughts. Prior suicide attempts always place people at high risk of trying to take their lives again.

The use of alcohol and sedatives also increases the risk of suicide. Be on guard if an elderly person is taking too much of her prescribed medications, especially sleeping pills.

Depression is the most frequent cause of suicidal thoughts; watch for symptoms such as loss of interest, fatigue, loss of appetite, episodes of crying and withdrawal.

Observe also whether your loved one has a preoccupation with giving away belongings or making changes in wills which may signal a preoccupation with death.

With increased age there is always the possibility that loss of cognitive function plays a role in thoughts of self-inflicted death. Disorganized thoughts, memory loss, paranoia, and hallucinations can all bring on thoughts and impulses to commit suicide.

In the past, older males had higher rates of suicide than females, but this is changing. Older women are now more likely to commit suicide. If a loved one seems at risk of committing suicide, take away potentially lethal items such as guns, drugs, medications and alcohol.

If anyone threatens to commit suicide, take it seriously. In an acute suicide emergency, call a suicide hotline, 911 or your local emergency number. If suicidal thoughts, threats, or gestures have gone on for some time, contact a trained mental health provider, family physician or social worker for help.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Dr. Istvan Boksay is a geriatric psychiatrist and chief of psychiatry at the Aging and Dementia Research Center at New York University Medical Center.

Copyright 1997 The Associated Press

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