Seniors and suicide

On May 4, 2006, a hiker enjoying a scenic, peaceful river canyon east of Red Deer came across the bodies of a husband and wife in the grass. The discovery of the couple, both in their 50s, rocked the community.

On May 4, 2006, a hiker enjoying a scenic, peaceful river canyon east of Red Deer came across the bodies of a husband and wife in the grass.

The discovery of the couple, both in their 50s, rocked the community. Foul play was ruled out and a suicide pact was suggested. Family and friends struggled for answers.

The search for an explanation after a suicide is common. What isn’t as common — but should be — is the realization that suicides are no longer a course of action reserved for a younger population.

Joan Seabrook relayed her reaction to The Canadian Press when she learned that a suicide pact ended the lives of her 68-year-old mother and 69-year-old father 20 years ago.

“Absolute devastation,” said Seabrook. “They weren’t ill. They had no medical issues.”

Her family desperately sought answers. But, as in the Red Deer incident in 2006, the answers are difficult to uncover, and to grasp once they are uncovered.

Suicide is a growing problem among older people who are burdened with depression that is often sparked by the inability to cope with the transition of life. U.S. studies put suicides in the top-20 causes of death for seniors.

The Canadian Mental Health Association says “suicide is often thought of as a threat primarily to young people, yet the reality is that men over the age of 80 years have the highest suicide rate among Canadians.”

Depression is a major cause of suicide. The CMHA says “seniors are at a higher risk for experiencing depressive symptoms, rather than major clinical depression, and are therefore at particularly high risk of not being diagnosed and treated.”

One roadblock may be a failure to accurately record the cause of death, suggests one expert. Nona Moscovitz, a manager of mental health services in Montreal, says suicide rates among the elderly may be under-reported.

“I think perhaps some deaths are documented as accidental when in fact it was maybe more intentionally.”

And what happens as a huge generation of baby boomers leaves middle age and attempts to cope with the reality of senior years?

Dr. Marnin Heisel studies suicide among older adults and is worried about the boomers now reaching 65. The University of Western Ontario expert says coping with transitions accompanying old age and changes in lifestyle can be major hurdles leading to depression and suicide.

In Canada, it’s reported that the number of people living in nursing homes and similar institutions is expected to soar as baby boomers hit their senior years.

People over 65 now make up 12 per cent of our population. By 2020, that group is projected to grow to 20 per cent of the national population.

This huge sector of the population is also closing in on retirement, and the inherent dangers that carries: a lack of purpose, too little activity, too much time to ponder the life left behind.

Thomas Joiner, professor of psychology for Florida State University Bright-Burton, in his recent book Why People Die by Suicide, says the desire for death is composed of two psychological states: “A perception of being a burden to others and a feeling of not belonging.”

How do we combat this rising problem?

An aggressive education program is needed, coupled with plenty of avenues for counselling and communication.

A big part of the solution is to learn to identify any hint of suicidal thinking and to talk to seniors about what’s on their minds.

“If you have a parent or a loved one — an elderly person that you have concerns about — that you think they might be depressed or have suicidal thoughts, you need to get on it,” said Seabrook. “If it’s an elderly parent, don’t be afraid to ask . . . they’re not going to fall apart.”

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.

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