Too often, we hear about teens, veterans, or corporate leaders whose sense of hopelessness and despair drives them to take their own lives. However, suicide also affects a group of citizens that we hear less about: adults over 65.
“Older adults in residential facilities may be at high risk,” says EDC’s Chris Miara. “They may have physical illnesses, be isolated from family and friends, and have lost connections to their communities. All of these are risk factors for suicide.”
Other common risk factors include the recent death of a loved one, uncontrollable pain or the fear of a prolonged illness, major changes in social roles (e.g., retirement), and alcohol and drug abuse. According to the American Association of Suicidology:
- In 2006, adults aged 65 years and older made up 12.5 percent of the population, but—with 5,299 older adults taking their own lives—they accounted for 16 percent of all suicides. That’s 14.5 elder suicides per day.
- Though adults aged 65 and older attempt suicide less frequently, they have higher rates of suicide completion—one suicide in every 4 attempts compared to one suicide in every 100–200 attempts made by youth ages 15–24.
- White men over the age of 85 are at the greatest risk of death by suicide of all age-gender-race groups. While the rate of suicide for women typically declines after age 60, it increases with age for men.
EDC, under a subcontract from the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, with funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), is developing the Suicide Prevention Assessment Resource Kit (SPARK) to help staff in residential facilities recognize the warning signs that can lead to older adult suicide.
“Older adults are at increased risk for suicide—that’s the bad news,” Miara says. “The good news is the staff in senior living facilities have the opportunity to learn to recognize when somebody is at risk and intervene.”
The first set of resources of its kind targeting suicide risk in older adults, SPARK will help staff develop activities for seniors that counteract isolation, as well as encourage connections with family and others and promote cognitive functioning. It will also provide suggestions for making elder care facilities less institutional and more personal and inviting.
SPARK will include three components: (1) a guide for facilities to implement suicide risk awareness and prevention strategies and policies, as well as activities and programs to benefit all residents; (2) a training guide for social workers, nurses, nurses’ aides, and other staff—for example, maintenance and dietary staff—who see the residents regularly, to help them recognize warning signs; and (3) fact sheets for the residents themselves.
The program will also involve families. “We’re developing workshops for the families because they’re in a good position to notice changes in behavior,” Miara says. “If the facilities are going to start addressing suicides, we need to get the families on board, too.”
Adds Miara, “The key message we hope to convey is that depression is not a normal part of aging. Older adults in residential facilities deserve to have this chapter in their lives be as rich, healthy, and fulfilling as possible. Our toolkit will provide resources and guidance to help staff, family members, and the residents themselves make this a reality.”
Originally published on July 13, 2009