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Understand the Risk Factors of Elderly Suicide and How to Reach Out

Kara Lewis
By Kara LewisSeptember 5, 2020

Individuals experiencing a crisis should call 800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741.

Loneliness and deteriorating health contribute to elderly suicide, an often overlooked national health crisis. More than 48,000 Americans died from suicide in 2018, according to research from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Though middle-aged men have the highest risk for suicide, seniors follow close behind — especially those 85 and older — with 19 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.

Despite these numbers, elderly suicide is rarely discussed. Jill Harkavy-Freidman, vice president of research at AFSP and associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, shares her advice for observing warning signs, improving senior mental health, and reaching out to aging loved ones.

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Recognize elderly suicide contributors and warning signs

Risk factors for elderly suicide fall into three categories: long-term, recent, and situational. Long-term factors can build up and make a person more vulnerable over time. Recent factors represent new and immediate concerns, while situational factors involve having access to means used for suicide. However, Harkavy-Freidman emphasizes, “Suicide is complex. It’s never one single factor.”


Starting a conversation about mental health might make them feel hopeful, and is better than bottling it up inside. Ask seniors what they’d like in their lives that they don’t have now, and how they can create that.

Jill Harkavy-Freidman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Long-term factors of elderly suicide include:

  • Having a mental health condition
  • Having a chronic health condition
  • A history of substance abuse
  • Family genetics
  • A history of early trauma
  • Having a head injury

Recent factors include:

  • Being intoxicated
  • Isolation, or loss of social interactions
  • Losing the ability to function independently
  • Experiencing an unanticipated stress

Situational factors include:

  • Senior firearm ownership. More than 90% of elderly firearm deaths are suicides, while only 50% of firearm deaths in the general population are, according to AFSP.

Reach out to senior loved ones to prevent elderly suicide

Though elderly suicide and depression may seem difficult to talk about, Harkavy-Freidman urges family members, caregivers, and other loved ones to push past this discomfort. “Seniors are used to talking about death, and you’re not going to shock them by discussing it. Also, you can’t make someone suicidal,” she says. “Starting a conversation about mental health might make them feel hopeful, and is better than bottling it up inside. Ask seniors what they’d like in their lives that they don’t have now, and how they can create that.” Ask if there’s anything you can do to help them achieve those changes.

Start with a simple, “How are you?” Even if your senior loved one isn’t considering suicide, regular conversations — either in-person or virtually — can fend off loneliness and senior depression. If they’ve recently lost a spouse or companion, show you’re willing to listen if they want to talk about their grief.

“We all have mental health, so we all have to do mental health check-ins,” says Harkavy-Freidman. “Ask people what they like to do and if there’s anything that they’re missing.” Caregivers and loved ones can encourage seniors to go for walks, become involved in social activities even while social distancing, play games and puzzles for mental stimulation, and turn to relaxation and meditation techniques, all of which promote senior mental health and well-being.


Everybody has mental health, so we have to do mental health check-ins. Ask people what they like to do and if there’s anything that they’re missing.

Jill Harkavy-Freidman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Physical health can have a profound effect on mental health. Harkavy-Freidman recommends talking to your senior loved one’s doctor about their medications and any side effects that might affect mental health. If your aging parent has a chronic health condition, like COPD or diabetes, talk with them and their doctor about ways to best manage symptoms. Fewer health concerns can help seniors attain peace of mind and reduce anxiety.

Resources for senior mental health

For more information on elderly suicide prevention, tune into AFSP’s Talk Saves Lives, a virtual training program on how to intervene. Veterans in crisis can send a text to 838255, the Veterans Crisis Line. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741.


Sources:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Suicide statistics.” 
https://afsp.org/suicide-statistics/

Kara Lewis
Author
Kara Lewis

Kara Lewis is a content writer at A Place for Mom. She’s worked in writing, editing, and creative strategy for several years, most recently at Andrews McMeel Universal, Hallmark, and Gannett Media. Her writing has appeared in Bustle, Alma, and The Kansas City Star, among other outlets. She has won awards for digitally conscious journalism, investigative reporting, magazine writing, and poetry.

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