Counseling & Healing: Suicide & the elderly Institute on Aging
March 23, 2012
Older adults often face a multitude of changes and stresses in
relation to the aging process, including health concerns,
physical limitations, financial problems, and loss of loved ones.
These changes may trigger depression, grief, a sense of isolation
and thoughts of suicide.
Who is at Risk?
Approximately every 83 minutes, one adult 65 years of age or
older commits suicide in the United States. The suicide rate for
this general age group rose by 9% between 1980 and 1992. During
that period, there were 74,675 suicides by elderly people. In
1993, suicide rates ranged from 15 per 100,000 population, among
persons 65 to 69 years old, to 24 per 100,000 population for
persons 80 to 85 years of age, a rate that is double the overall
US rate. White males are at nearly 10 times the risk for suicide
as nonwhite males across the age spectrum.
White men over 80 years old are at the greatest risk of all age,
gender, and racial groups. The suicide rate for this group is six
times the current overall rate and three times the rate of
African-American males over 80 years old. This high rate among
white males over 80 is important because the very elderly age
group (85 years and older) is the fastest growing sub-population
of elderly adults in the United States.
Older adults tend to use highly lethal means to commit suicide.
In 1988, nearly 8 out of 10 suicides committed by men 65 years
and above were done so with a firearm. Of the 6,363 elderly
adults who committed suicide in 1988, for example, 67% (4264)
used firearms to end their lives. Hanging and poisoning were the
second and third leading causes of suicide in this group.
Under-reporting of Suicides
Minimum estimates of suicides among the elderly in the United
States range from 6000 to 10,000 annually. Often these suicides
are not reported as such but are listed as accidental deaths.
Many are committed by isolated, lonely, older people. In some
cases, there are no friends or family members who care about the
person’s cause of death; in other cases, they may be too afraid
to inquire because of the stigma attached to this kind of death.
Additionally, suicides are often mistaken for natural deaths,
especially in cases of medicinal overdosing, because many older
people take several medications.
For the population as a whole, approximately 25 suicide attempts
occur for every death by suicide. Ratios for the young (24 years
of age and younger) are as high as 200 attempts for every
suicide. For elderly people, the ratio of attempts to completed
suicides narrows dramatically to 4:1. Thus, an older person who
contemplates suicide is more likely to complete the act. There
are several reasons for this fact. First, as mentioned
previously, elderly people often employ lethal methods when
attempting suicide. Second, older people experience greater
social isolation. Finally, the elderly generally have poorer
recuperative capacity, which make them less likely to recover
from a suicide attempt.
Depression, Alcohol & Suicide
A direct relationship exists between depression and suicide,
alcoholism and depression, and alcoholism and suicide. Studies
indicate that the risk of suicide in alcoholics is 50% to 70%
greater than in the general population. Studies show that
individuals suffering from a major affective disorder have a
greater than 50% higher suicide rate than the general population.
Lifetime risk for suicide in the general population is 1%,
compared with 15% for persons suffering from depression and 15%
for alcoholics. Studies of alcoholics reveal that between 30% and
60% suffer from depression, and a significant proportion of
alcoholics have other persons in their families suffering from
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