Supporting an Aging Parent Experiencing Suicidal Ideations

It can seem impossible to comprehend, but you may be the adult child of a parent who theoretically should be enjoying his or her Golden Years and your mother or father may be experiencing what medically are known as suicidal ideations. In this article, we provide a candid discussion of suicidal ideations and what you can do to support an aging parent who is experiencing this type of emotional distress. 

What Are Suicidal Ideations?

In order to understand what is meant by suicidal ideation, you need to understand the different between suicidal thoughts (sometimes referred to as passive suicidal ideation) and suicidal ideation. Suicidal thoughts are represented by a situation in which an individual wishes he or she were dead or thinks about taking his or her own life. Despite thinking about suicide, a person at this stage has not:

  • Formulated a specific plan to commit suicide
  • Obtain an instrumentality to commit suicide (gun, rope, medications)

Suicidal ideation, on the other hand, is:

  • Thinking about suicide
  • Having developed a plan to commit suicide
  • Obtaining an instrument to commit suicide

Seek Immediate Emergency Support and Assistance

If you believe that your mother or father is experiencing suicidal ideations, you need to take immediate action to protect them from harm. This includes:

  • Listen to the older individual experiencing suicidal ideations with empathy
  • Provide compassionate reassurance
  • Do not downplay your loved one’s feelings
  • Keep risk factors in mind (discussed elsewhere in this article)
  • Ask what typically helps a person when he or she feels like he or she does
  • Seek additional support – including emergency assistance – for the loved one 

Risk Factors for Suicidal Ideations Among Senior Men and Women

The underlying reason why an older individual may experience suicidal ideations can vary from one individual to another – and oftentimes significantly so. The reality is that every person has his or her own life journey. With that said, there are some risk factors that more commonly are associated with older individuals experiencing suicidal ideations. These factors include:

  • Having attempted suicide in the past
  • Having a mental health disorder
  • Feeling hopeless, isolated, or lonely
  • Not being married
  • Having a spouse, child, or other close loved who has died
  • Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender
  • Having served in the military
  • Having a chronic physical illness like cancer, diabetes, or a terminal disease
  • Having chronic pain
  • Having a traumatic brain injury
  • Having a family history of suicide
  • Having a drug or alcohol use disorder
  • Having experienced childhood abuse or trauma
  • Living in a rural area
  • Having access to firearms

Longer Term Treatment for an Older Individual With Suicidal Ideations

After the initial emergency situation in which an older individual experienced suicidal ideations is addressed, a more long-term course of care and treatment is necessary. The more widely used types of treatment for an individual who has suffered suicidal ideations include:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Family therapy and education
  • Substance use disorder treatment
  • Medications to treat underlying condition
  • Lifestyle changes

An individual who has experienced suicidal ideations may need to simultaneously access more than one course of treatment or recovery mentioned a moment ago in this article. For example, an older individual that entertained suicidal ideations may have both depression and a substance use disorder. An individual suffering from both depression and a substance use disorder would be said to have a dual diagnosis. In such a situation, that individual would need treatment for both coexisting conditions.


Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, brings an older individual who has experienced suicidal ideations together with a therapist. Through talk therapy, a person who labored under suicidal ideations is able to explore how that came about and develop mechanisms to cope.

Family Therapy and Education

Family therapy and associated education involves loved ones in the treatment process. This can allow family members to better understand how and why an older loved one experienced suicidal ideations. 

Substance Use Disorder Treatment

A significant number of seniors have some type of substance use disorder. The most common substance use disorder historically has been called alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, or alcoholism. Treatment for substance use disorder can be necessary as part of an overall course of recovery following a time in which an older individual experienced suicidal ideations.

Medications to Treat Underlying Condition 

Medications may be recommended to treat mental health conditions that may have contributed to an older individual experiencing suicidal ideations. Typically, these medications may include:

  • Antidepressant medications
  • Antipsychotic medications
  • Anti-anxiety medications

Lifestyle Changes

Finally, as a means of long-term support and assistance for an older individual that experienced suicidal ideations, lifestyle changes very well could be a highly recommended course. One set of lifestyle changes might center on an individual who endured suicidal ideations addressing issues of social isolation. One option to bear in mind in that type of situation is to consider whether an older person might socially and otherwise benefit by moving into an assisted living community.