Suicide and Self-Harm Among Seniors

There is a cliché that growing older isn’t for the faint of heart. There can be many challenges on different fronts for people as they advance in years. Sadly, there are times when the challenges of aging lead an older person to contemplate suicide or even develop suicidal ideations. There are a number of significant reasons why older people contemplate suicide, have suicidal ideations, attempt suicide or die by suicide. We discuss these in this article. 

Facts and Statistics: Suicide Among Seniors

The National Council on Aging has compiled some truly startling facts and statistics related to suicide among older Americans. These statistics reveal:

  • Older adults comprise 12 percent of the population but account for about 18 percent of suicide deaths
  • In 2020, there were nearly 46,000 suicide deaths in the county, of which 9,137 involved people age 65 and older
  • Older adults tend to be more deliberate and careful in planning suicide, which results in more completed suicides
  • Older adults tend to use more lethal methods, which results in more completed suicides
  • Among individuals who attempt suicide, one in four seniors succeed compared to one in 200 young people
  • Even if a senior should survive an attempted suicide, that individual is less likely to recover from the effects of an attempt
  • Men who are 65 years of age or older have the highest suicide rate in the country

Primary Reasons Older Americans Are at a Higher Risk of Suicide

The National Council on Aging has identified the primary reasons why older American men and women are at a higher risk of suicide. These are:

  • Loneliness
  • Grief over death of a loved one
  • Loss of independence of self-sufficiency
  • Chronic illness
  • Chronic pain
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Financial troubles

Each of these are discussed in a bit more detail.

Loneliness: At the top of the list of why older people have suicidal thoughts, suicidal ideations, attempt suicide, and die by suicide is loneliness. The reality is that a considerable percentage of older people live in their own homes alone. Sometimes these individuals lack reliable, regular social connections with others, including family and friends. 

Grief over death of a loved one: The National Council on Aging has succinctly explained the extent of grief over the death of a loved one – or loved ones, many times – that an older person endures:

Adults who live long enough may begin to lose cherished family members and friends to old age and illness. They may wrestle with their own mortality and experience anxiety about dying. For some, this “age of loss” is overwhelming and can intensify feelings of loneliness and hopelessness.  

Loss of independence of self-sufficiency: The aging process naturally (literally, naturally) takes its toll on a person’s body. Over time, some people are unable to engage in the same activities that were easy to do earlier in their lives. This can include basic tasks of daily living – like grooming, bathing, dressing, basic housekeeping, and so forth. This loss of independence of self-sufficiency can prove to be highly challenging for some older people to contend with and reconcile.

Chronic illness: Many older individuals are afflicted with some type of chronic illness. In some cases, these illnesses, diseases, or conditions can have a significantly negative impact on an older person’s life. As a consequence, chronic illness is among the most common underlying reasons why a person attempts suicide or dies by suicide.

Chronic pain: On a related note, chronic pain is another issue for a good many older people. Despite the availability of different types of pain management options, there are times in which a person’s pain cannot be well enough controlled. Eventually, some people with chronic pain come to think that they will only experience true relief upon dying. 

Cognitive impairment: Cognitive impairment is one of the most devastating things that can happen in a person’s life. The impact of a disease or condition like Alzheimer’s or dementia on all aspects of a person’s life can be significant and profound. Yet another reason why a good many older people contemplate, attempt, or die by suicide is a result of a cognitive impairment of some type. 

Financial troubles: Finally, high on the list of underlying reasons an older person dies by suicide is financial troubles. According to the National Council on Aging: 

Older adults living on a fixed income may struggle to pay their bills or keep food on the table. For someone who is already struggling with health issues or grief, financial stress can be a trigger for suicidal thoughts.

Warning Signs of Suicide in Older People

There are some specific warning signs of an older person at risk for suicide that you need to know. These include:

  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Giving away beloved items or changing their will
  • Avoiding social activities
  • Neglecting self-care, medical regimens, and grooming
  • Exhibiting a preoccupation with death
  • Lacking concern for personal safety

These warning signs were provided by the National Council on Aging.