The dream of the golden years is a picture captured on television shows and movies.  It’s the image of a woman and man taking their grandson on a walk or a grey-haired couple holding hands on a park bench enjoying the sunshine.  However, the stark reality for many elders is that aging can lead to illness or loss of function.  It’s the unexpected death of a spouse or the news of a devastating health diagnosis.  Financial struggles, loneliness, and loss of independence are also realities that many elders face.

When the dream of a happy, healthy, and financially stable future is shattered, depression and sadness can creep in.  Sometimes that feeling can grow into despair or even thoughts of suicide.  In fact, according to Prevent Suicide Rhode Island, 17 percent of suicides in our state are committed by older adults.  Nationally, there was a 147 percent increase in drug-related deaths and a 13 percent increase in suicide between 2019 and 2020, according to a report issued last month.

There are times when elders may be more vulnerable to thoughts of self-harm, according to experts on aging.  They may include:

  • Loss of a spouse or a loved one.
  • Loss of self-sufficiency.
  • Loss of independence.
  • Financial challenges.
  • Chronic illness and pain.
  • Cognitive impairments.

Caregivers, family members, neighbors, and friends can help prevent suicide by being aware of the situational triggers.  It’s natural to grieve or be sad when certain life events happen.  But for some, those feelings intensify and they feel that their situation is inescapable.  Depressed elders sometimes can’t think clearly and are frustrated that they can’t stop their pain, whether it is mental or physical.  These elders are in crisis and falsely believe that suicide is their only option. 

Being aware of the warning signs can help those who are in crisis get the help they need.  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides a list of 11 behaviors that may indicate if someone is intent on harming themselves.  They may be:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated or perhaps behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little–or too much
  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge or
  • Experiencing extreme mood swings.

If you know of an elder who is exhibiting any of these warning signs, it’s important to get help right away.  If there is immediate danger, call 911.  If you’d like to speak with a trained suicide prevention expert, you can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK or The Samaritans at (401) 272-4044.  Some people prefer communicating by way of text and the National Crisis Text Line is also on standby and ready to assist.  Text “HOME” to 741741. Another way that you can help prevent a suicide attempt is by talking to your loved one. Let them know about local resources in the mental health community and help them access an appointment. If they are a PACE participant, alert their social worker who will help them get mental health assistance.

Once professional help has been obtained, you can also play a role as someone who is important in that elder’s life.

  1. Listen to them and let them know that their feelings are real. 
  2. Let them know how much they mean to you and how important they are in your life. 
  3. Help connect them to others in the community, whether it is a reading club, senior center, or participation in an adult day center like PACE provides. 
  4. Most importantly, keep connected to them even after the crisis subsides.

Other practical prevention steps include eliminating quick access to items in the home that can be fatal.

  1. If you have firearms in the home, get a free gun lock.  A list of local places where they can be obtained can be found here.
  2. Safely dispose of extra medications in your home once you have completed your doctor-recommended course of treatment.  Find a drug disposal site in your Rhode Island city or town here.
  3. Lock any medication, whether it is over the counter or prescription, with a free lock bag.  To obtain a locked bag by mail, click here

We are all human beings longing for a connection.  Even wise elders can feel lonely, afraid, and desperate.  Be prepared, be a good listener, recognize the signs, and know-how to help your loved one through their crisis.  Experts on your loved one’s care team at PACE are here to help.