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Depression and Suicide in the Elderly

Growing old in the modern society has become hazardous to one’s health. The social causes of depression in the elderly seem clear. The old are horribly isolated—a consequence of our youth-worshiping culture and the breakdown of the extended family. In traditional societies, elders have been venerated and taken care of by the community. Now seniors live in understaffed, sometimes abusive nursing homes or alone in decrepit apartments.

One manifestation of this phenomenon is the alarming increase in the number of older Americans who are attempting suicide—and succeeding. Although the elderly make up 13 percent of the population, they account for 20 percent of all suicides—more than any other age group.

There are many reasons, of course, why an older person might want to commit suicide—failing physical health, chronic pain, or an unwillingness to be a burden to the family. But studies show that up to 90 percent of those who kill themselves are acting not out of a logical despair, but because they are suffer from clinical depression.

Eighty percent of older people who commit suicide are white males, and most use firearms. Other suicides go totally unreported. For example, many elderly people may kill themselves by refusing to eat or by stopping their medications. On the death certificates, these deaths are usually blamed on pneumonia or heart failure. With proper treatment, their lives could have been saved.

Fortunately, the elderly rarely kill themselves on impulse; hence there is a better chance to identify and to help those at risk. People who have recently retired, who have lost a loved one, or who have entered a nursing home (thereby losing their home, privacy and personal freedom) are among the groups who are most likely to become depressed—and then suicidal. If you have an older friend or relative you think might be suicidal, here are some signs to look for:

  • Changes in behavior. Symptoms include more drinking and less interest in friends, family, hobbies or churchgoing, giving away money and prize possessions, buying a gun or stockpiling guns.
  • Carelessness about personal appearance. Symptoms include hair uncombed, clothes not cleaned or pressed.
  • How they feel. Symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite (many people simply stop eating), having no joy in life, anger expressed towards self or others, a sense of hopelessness and despair.
  • What they say. Words include “I’d be better off dead,” “My family would be better off without me” and “I won’t be around much longer.”

Experts fear that elderly suicides will soar as the baby boom generation ages. Fortunately, when older people are treated for depression through therapy, medication, or ECT, they often get well quickly and go on to years more of productive living. This is why it is critical to recognize the early signs of depression so that the tragedy of suicide can be averted.

In addition, changes in the social milieu can be implemented so that our elders are reintegrated into the community. The current trend towards co-housing—a situation where people pool their resources and live in individual dwellings on a shared piece of land— is very encouraging. Perhaps, out of economic necessity, aging baby boomers will begin to recreate community. And what is good for the pocketbook will be beneficial for the emotions and spirit as well.