Elder Suicide Intervention
For most people, America is a great place to grow old. In fact, the University of Chicago recently found that “33% of Americans report being very happy at age 88, compared with only 24% of young adults.”
Older American adults often have less child-rearing and workplace stress, greater flexibility with their day and more wisdom to help them cope with challenges than younger adults, but as Today’s Geriatric Medicine points out, not all older adults are happy. “Many events commonly associated with the aging process are known to increase the risk of depression and suicidal tendencies,” the journal reports.
Elderly at the Greatest Risk for Suicide
In fact, statistics show that 18% of all self-inflicted deaths are by older adults, although this demographic comprises 15% of America’s population. So, it stands to reason that as the number of seniors in America increases, so will the country’s suicide rates. Caregivers and senior care communities are in the best position to help combat suicide in older adults.
As a whole, seniors are a high risk group for suicide. However, these seniors come in contact with health care providers fairly regularly, which is why it’s important that health professionals are well versed in identifying seniors at risk.
“Among older adults who die by suicide, approximately 77% visit a primary care provider within the last year of life, and 58% do so within their last month of life,” Today’s Geriatric Medicine reports.
According to the journal, America’s seniors are “disproportionately more likely to die by suicide,” which is why health providers, caregivers and care organizations should be prepared with elder suicide prevention programs.
While studies show that certain demographics have higher rates of suicide than others (older Caucasian men for example), it’s important for caregivers to remember that any senior, from any demographic could be at risk.
Patient profiles of the elderly groups most at risk include:
- Men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women. Male deaths represent 79% of all U.S. suicides and are highest among men aged 75 and older.
- People without family support, especially among divorced and widowed older adults.
- People suffering from depression, substance abuse or another underlying mental illness. 90% of people who took their own life suffered from one of these illnesses.
Other suicide risk factors for seniors include:
- Coping with major life changes like the loss of friends or a spouse, or a move
- Financial difficulties
- Managing chronic pain
- Suffering from chronic health conditions
- Taking certain prescription medications which can alter brain chemistry
Symptoms of Dementia and Depression
For many health care professionals, differentiating between symptoms of dementia and depression is a challenge. These two illnesses cause many of the same symptoms, including:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Impaired thinking
- Loss of interest in activities and hobbies
- Social withdrawal and isolation
Both patients of dementia and depression are at risk of failing to keep medical appointments, or neglecting medication, so it’s especially important that health care professionals identify and help patients with either of these issues.
“Given the fact that more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, it is important to carefully screen patients exhibiting these symptoms to help determine the correct plan of care,” says Today’s Geriatric Medicine.
Tools to Help Assess Risk
Health care providers need proper training in order to assess and identify patients at high risk of suicide.
“One of the most powerful tools available to physicians, case workers, and other clinical staff is the act of listening and observing.”
“Patients with depression and suicidal tendencies often leave clues during the weeks and months before ending their lives,” says Dr. Kaleem Arshad, MD, DFAPA, a board-certified addiction, adult, and geriatric psychiatrist at Oceans Behavioral Hospital Greater New Orleans.
Health care providers should also be aware of common triggers for suicide, including seniors with financial troubles or those who feel like a care burden to family, and those with a recent death in the family, or a recent move.
Many health care teams have put routines in place that are designed to help identify patients at risk of suicide. These processes are implemented for all patients, and are important tools for care providers and care organizations, providers and personal support workers to use:
- Processes requiring care providers to note and report any atypical mood or behavioral changes to physicians
- Processes that require care providers to regularly ask seniors about trigger points
- The Beck Depression Inventory has been used since the 1960’s to identify and measure depression
While it may not be possible to recognize the signs of suicidal thoughts in all seniors at risk, caregivers and care organizations who work regularly with seniors have a unique opportunity to help intervene. If you’re concerned about a senior you work with connect the senior and their family to a therapist or other mental health organization who can provide the help they need. Your care and diligence can help save a seniors life.
Are you a caregiver who has helped combat elder suicide? Share your stories and thoughts with us in the comments below.
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