He said that if he ever were to commit suicide, he would do it in the bathtub in order to avoid leaving a mess. It caused some gasps and discomfort at the family gathering, but his wife changed the subject. You can probably guess the rest. He had been lethargic for some time when one day when his wife was out of the house he did exactly what he had said he would do. True story about a friend of one of our team’s parents shared with me.
Last week I talked about the warning signs of depression and to be on the lookout during this season. And this same vigilance holds true for suicide as well, because more older adults commit suicide than younger adults. The rates of suicide are anywhere from 10 percent to 35 percent higher for 65 to 85+ year-olds than for the average American which is about 14 suicides per 100,000. There are about 47,000 successful suicides each year out of 1.3 million attempts. Just as you need to know the warning signs for depression, it is important to know what to look for in suicidal older loved ones:
- No surprise, being depressed tops the list.
- Talking about dying or “when I am no longer around” should be triggers.
- Talking about having the means like a lethal weapon is what therapists call part of “suicidal ideation.”
- Negative changes in appearance or self-care are warnings.
- Changes in mood for the worse or increasing social isolation are tells.
- Giving away important possessions also are a kind of preparatory warning.
The list actually does go on, but you can see the basic issues that you will not want to be looking back on and saying “Why didn’t I do anything?” So, what can you do? Some people may believe that talking about it will make it happen or make matters worse. Raising the subject will not make it happen. Well, you do have to be tactful about what you say, but showing a suicidal loved one that you care enough to ask is huge. You also should show them that you get that it is a big deal for them…do not say, “Oh, I know how you feel.” You don’t. You can ask them if they have thought about suicide before. You also can help them to find help through on-line or local resources of professionals. Spend some time and remember to empathize; don’t sympathize. The latter will sound like you are talking down to them instead of with them. And appreciate that a person can move beyond these thoughts and feelings with help. I offered an on-line resource last week for depression. Here are a few useful sites that can help you have the language and perspective to effectively communicate with someone who would benefit from a caring loved one’s conversation:
The Notre Dame Counseling Page
The UC Santa Cruz Psychological Services Page
Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.