A Death In The Family
Suicide rates among the elderly, especially white males, are higher than you might think.
Thursday, September 21, 2000
They have lived full lives, seen their children grow and become parents themselves, and retired after decades of hard work in anticipation of a slower pace of life. But for many elderly people in Monterey County and across the country, old age is a time of isolation and loss. Some seniors, particularly those suffering from clinical depression, bereavement, or terminal illness, find the weight of facing the last years of their lives too much to bear, and choose to end their lives prematurely through suicide.
The statistics on elderly suicides are startling. Nationwide, one elderly person commits suicide every 90 minutes--the vast majority of them being white males--and the national suicide rate for the elderly is 50 percent higher than other age groups and is on the rise. Of the 26 Monterey County residents who committed suicide last year, six were over the age of 60.
Public perception generally links high suicide rates to troubled youngsters stumbling through puberty rather than ailing seniors, but the issues affecting the two groups are not as disparate as one might think, according to Diane Brice, program director of the Suicide Prevention Service of the Central Coast.
"Both groups are in periods of intense change and feel powerless," Brice explains. "Seniors experience so much loss. They lose spouses, friends, even their jobs. That can mean a loss of identity and the end of connections to their communities." Seniors and teens also share a lack of knowledge and willingness to access available resources for help, the reason behind Suicide Prevention''s Senior and Teen Outreach Program (STOP), a complement to their crisis line, counseling and other services.
The issue isn''t so much a lack of services in the area, it''s convincing today''s aging population to take advantage of them, says Sheryl Zika, director of the Alliance on Aging, an umbrella agency offering peer counseling, referrals and other services. "There''s a real stigma to accepting mental health services among today''s elderly," she explains. "That generation was raised to think of taking help as a sign of weakness."
And men in particular have a tough time reaching out for help and creating community, says Zika, which is one reason that white men over 85 have the highest suicide rate, both locally and nationwide. Eighty percent of elderly suicides are white males. Last year in Monterey County, all six elderly suicide victims were white men, and three of the four victims so far this year have been men. According to Zika, because men statistically have shorter life spans than women, they do not prepare for having to live on their own and often struggle to make new friends and manage the tasks of daily life.
As for why most elderly suicides are white, Zika chalks it up to the stigma attached to suicide in certain ethnic and religious communities, as well as to the fact that many non-Anglo groups have tighter family units that provide a better safety net for grandparents.
Whatever the individual circumstance that prompt this small subset of seniors to give up on living, chances are good that they leave heartache in their wake. Pat Garrigues, who heads up Suicide Prevention''s grief support services, says, "When you''ve been married for 50 years, no matter how your spouse dies, you feel like you''ve lost a part of your body." The feelings of betrayal, anger and abandonment that overwhelm suicide survivors explain why their own risk of suicide and depression skyrockets after a loved one takes his or her own life.
The treatment of clinical depression amongst the elderly--whose biological changes alter the effectiveness of common anti-depressants--remains largely unexplored by the medical profession, according to a recent Harvard Medical Health Letter. Garrigues says that practical, everyday changes in American society could make a difference. "When seniors don''t have a partner, their friends are dying, and their children live across the country, they fall deeper and deeper into isolation," she says. "If people understood that, maybe we would all just take a few extra minutes with elderly people."
Suicide Prevention''s crisis line is (877) 663-5433.