Is Mom or Dad at Risk for Suicide?

Posted: 6/19/2018 12:51 PM by Interim HealthCare

Suicide in seniors is increasingly common — and it’s preventable.

Recent headlines about the deaths of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain sparked a national conversation about suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate in the United States jumped 30 percent between 2000 and 2016. In women, it increased an astounding 50 percent.  
Young and middle-aged people aren’t the only ones taking their lives. In fact, the highest rates of suicide in men, by far, are among those age 75 and older.
For children of aging parents, the statistics are a wake-up call.
Why older adults are at risk
On the one hand, emotional well-being and satisfaction with relationships generally improve with age, says Kimberly Van Orden, Ph.D., spokesperson for the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. Van Orden is also a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at University of Rochester School of Medicine.
But common challenges of aging, such as illness and physical limitations (especially when they impair day-to-day functioning), the grief of losing loved ones and friends and concerns about finances can contribute to depression, social isolation and feeling like a burden.
The role of ageism
While health problems can indeed be challenging, many seniors, and the people around them, are all too ready to accept depression as a "natural" part of aging, says Patrick Arbore, Ed.D., founder and director of the Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief-Related Service at the Institute on Aging, a California-based nonprofit. That readiness, he says, is a sign of widespread ageism, which he calls a root cause of higher suicide rates among the elderly.
"Being an older person is a complicated experience in our culture," says Arbore. "We're not good as a society talking about what it means to age and what we face."
Van Orden also points to ageism as a serious problem. Contrary to what many people might believe, she says, "suicide and depression are not inevitable outcomes of aging." Depression, even in seniors, is a mood disorder that calls for treatment.
What to Do
If you think health issues may be getting your parent down, one step that might help is scheduling a consultation with a geriatrician. These doctors are trained in treating older patients, including managing multiple health conditions, fine-tuning medications, spotting underlying symptoms of depression and more. Geriatricians also can work with a patient's primary care physician and other specialists to coordinate care. Improving your loved one’s quality of life and helping them feel better physically could improve their outlook.
If your parent has more than a case of the blues — especially if they're withdrawn, or they’re telling you outright that life is no longer worth living or they don't want to be a burden — it’s time to take action.
There are many ways you can help. "There are a lot of things that can be done for suicide prevention that don't necessarily look like suicide prevention," says Van Orden.
Heed the warning signs. Diminished social interaction, poor grooming and skipping doctors’ appointments and medications are signs of distress. Others include changing a will, giving things away and not making needed follow-up medical appointments.
Start a conversation. "It's very safe to ask if someone is having suicidal thoughts," says Van Orden. "It's best to be direct and use the word 'suicide.' You will not plant that idea in their head. They may be grateful you asked."
Ask for help. There's often an impulse to "keep it in the family," but don’t. If you're concerned, seek professional assistance. You can call your parent's physician or turn to resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255) or the Institute on Aging's Friendship Line (800-971-0016).
Remove lethal means. Access to guns is a significant risk factor, especially among older men. "If someone has a firearm, assisting them with getting that out of the house is very important," says Van Orden. If you notice that your loved one is stockpiling medication, alert his or her physician and ask about next steps.
Look into palliative care. Because it's focused on relieving pain and improving quality of life for people with serious illnesses, "palliative care is suicide prevention," says Van Orden.
Suggest psychotherapy. "A lot of older adults don't understand what psychotherapy can be," says Van Orden. "Even just four sessions can make a big change in older people." She cites a 92-year-old patient who had grown despondent and isolated after his wife died. By the end of a few sessions, he'd started dating. Seek a referral from your parent’s primary care physician for a therapist who has experience treating older adults.
Consider in-home help. If you think your parent needs some help at home and you can’t be there fulltime, remember that home care services are available. Aides can assist your mom or dad with tasks of daily living, including the preparation of healthy meals, and also provide companionship.
Anything that helps people re-engage with life helps, says Van Orden. "There are a lot of good things that happen later in life that are pretty remarkable."
Alison Ashton is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.