Senior Suicides on the Increase
Last updated 1/3/2024 at 8:33pm | View PDF
While the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics reported that the number of suicides of people 10-24 years old went down by more than 8% between 2021 and 2022, the numbers were far less encouraging for seniors during those years. Suicides increased by 6.6% for those 45-64, and 8.1% for those 65 and older.
The increase was seen both nationally and locally.
"There was a sharp increase among those 55 and older," said Noah Whitaker, who served as the director of Tulare County's Suicide Prevention Task Force for ten years. "There were eight deaths in the county in 2021; 18 in 2022."
There are several main reasons older people are at a greater risk of suicide.
"Oftentimes, there may be a dozen or more risk factors ongoing over many years, and now they're facing the death of a spouse or a new diagnosis of dementia or worsening pain," psychiatrist Christine Moutier, M.D., chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said in a recent interview. "Any one of those can be a piling up of risk factors,"
Loneliness and lack of personal autonomy are other factors. Retirement usually means a breakdown in connections, leading to increased loneliness. Also, seniors often perceive themselves as being a burden to their family and friends.
"People get to a point where they don't think they have purpose for their life," said Erika N. Jackson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Visalia. "It's really difficult if they don't have the family they need for their support."
"Suicide is incredibly complex," said Whitaker. "In my opinion, a lifetime of experience can mount up on a person."
Whitaker also offered another reason for the CDC statistics.
Seniors tend to use more lethal means, he explained, noting that teens make 100 attempts for every one that becomes a suicide, so teens are more likely to survive the attempt. Seniors, however, have one suicide for every two events.
"An older person will be more likely to use a firearm," he explained.
"I think (family and friends) should watch for when a person is acting out of character, like when a person who was outgoing is now isolated," said Jackson, "or when a person gives their belongings away. I would also say when they are losing interest in previously enjoyed activities."
She added that some people at risk of suicide say things like, "It will all be over soon. I encourage family members to ask what they mean by that. Let's not make thoughts of suicide secretive. We always want to make sure to take them seriously."
Jackson also said that it is important for seniors to have family support, feel loved and have "things they can still look forward to."
Where to Get Help
Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency created the Older Adult Hopelessness Screening Program (OAHS), which assesses levels of hopelessness in older adults and offers early intervention services to reduce suicide risk, improve quality of care and prevent the onset of serious mental illness.
"One individual (helped by the program) had terminal cancer and was suicidal," said Whitaker, who recalled what one of the individual's children said about OAHS, "The last few months of my father's life, you gave him a life."
The Kings/Tulare Area Agency on Aging, which was created in 1965 to advocate for issues and concerns facing adults as they age, uses technology to combat loneliness. It offers a program that uses iPads to connect otherwise isolated seniors.
"The Senior Access for Engagement (SAFE) Program provides supportive services to older adults in their home, senior centers, nursing homes and assisted living facilities," said Polo Ortiz, manager of Adult Services for Kings County Behavioral Health. "SAFE providers promote psychosocial supports and identify possible signs and symptoms of mental illness, assisting older adults with appropriate referral linkage to mental health treatment."
SAFE serves isolated older adults ages 60 and older at risk of or beginning to experience mental health problems, such as depression related to aging and isolation. SAFE also serves primary caregivers of older adults with mental illness, but caregivers accessing this service must live in a non-licensed setting and not be paid for caregiving.
SAFE services include:
• Visitation to older adults in the home or community to provide social support;
• Caregiver support group;
• Linkages to respite for caregivers;
• Referral and linkage to other community-based providers for other needed social services and primary care; and
• Wellness and socialization engagement via events, and activity opportunities for the seniors/older adult population and caregivers.
Respite for Caregivers aids caregivers needing periodic relief from their supervision and caregiving duties of older adults. Respite for Caregivers also gives caregivers the opportunity to engage in activities and to utilize social supports needed to alleviate their stress and promote well-being.
The program also provides assistance to primary caregivers for the supervision and caregiving of his or her family member
Kings County seniors can also call for assistance at 988, the 24-hour Suicide and Crisis Lifeline; or the Warm Line, which offers non-emergency, non-crisis support by simply enabling seniors to talk to someone.
How to Help a Loved One
"The more strands you can weave into a safety net, the stronger the net is," said Whitaker.
He suggests talk therapy, medication, social engagement and nutrition.
"Nutrition is a major driver of emotional balance," he explained. "Poor diets can lead to poor mental health."