Seniors, Social Isolation and Suicide

The suicides we choose to ignore:

The incidence of suicide in older adults is often overshadowed by the media coverage given to youth suicide. But the fact remains,

‘The older someone is, the greater risk of suicide.’

Kimberley Van Orden is a clinical psychologist specialising in suicide prevention among older adults. She says,  

‘Suicide is not an expected response to the challenges of aging.’

So, it may come as a surprise to know that suicidal behaviour in older adults is a major public health issue in many countries.

Data provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that the highest age-specific suicide rate for men in 2018 was found in the 85+ age group, recording 32.9 deaths per 100, 000 persons. This rate was considerably higher than the age-specific suicide rate observed in all other age groups, for both sexes.

Older adults make up a considerable proportion of Australia’s population. In 2017, over 1 in 7 people were aged 65 and over. It is their exposure to a range of risk factors which can increase vulnerability to suicide.

Dr. Leon Kagan, the director of Geriatric Psychiatry at the University of Alberta, Canada, says many seniors cope well with aging. It’s when they begin to lose their independence that they become at risk for depression. He says,

‘What makes them vulnerable to suicide is, I would say, the isolation that develops, more than anything.’

Dr. Kagan highlights some of the changes older individuals must contend with. He says,

“These older individuals are having everything taken away from them in terms of their work, their health, their families and finding their role diminished…. And for some of them, taking their own life seems like it might be the only option that they have.”

David Helmers is the executive director of The Australian Men’s Sheds Associations (AMSA).

He finds the high rate of suicides among men aged over 85 alarming, but not surprising. He says,

‘It’s a very complex problem. It’s tragic. They feel worthless. If they are not seeing their families anymore, they just think, ‘Why am I doing this?’’

Mr. Helmers identifies social isolation as one of the key factors driving the high suicide rates. He says,

‘Social isolation is the tipping point. It creates poor eating, poor living, substance abuse, suicide. Lots of the key killers of men can be linked to social isolation.’

A recent Australian study, Suicide in Older Adults, found living alone was “a significant independent predictor of suicide”.

Older adults living alone find they are unable to do many of the things they once enjoyed due to changes in physical or cognitive functioning. Any diminished capacity undermines confidence and may lead to a withdrawal from social activities. Should an older person experience long periods of loneliness and social isolation, it can have a negative impact on their physical and mental wellbeing.

There are numerous reasons older people might feel lonely or isolated. These include

  • Losing a loved one or friend through death or relocation
  • Lack of close family ties
  • Losing the ability to live independently
  • Sensory impairment and losses (particularly with men)
  • Difficulties in meeting new people due to access issues, an introverted personality, or feeling like you don’t belong
  • Feelings of loss or grief
  • Poor physical health, frailty, mobility issues
  • A mental health condition such as depression or anxiety
  • Fear of rejection from others or feelings of being “different” or stigmatised by society
  • Inability to participate in activities due to access issues, mobility, illness, transport
  • Retirement from work, home relocation, starting out in a new role or community
  • Lack of purpose or meaning in life
  • Language or cultural barriers, or reduced connection with your culture of origin
  • Geographic isolation
  • Feeling lost in the crowd 

To help support older adults’ well-being and reduce the likelihood of suicidal behaviour it is important to discuss with them what they consider essential to a healthy and productive life.  

In a recent study, Growing Older, Staying Well, aged and elderly people reported that physical health and more social contact were the two key elements that would help improve their quality of life. They also stated that they wish to be involved in the community and contribute meaningfully through volunteering or employment.

Let us look at some of these elements in more detail.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle

Keeping our bodies and minds active in our later years makes a big difference to how well and happy we feel, as well as how fit we are.

Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, stimulating our minds, getting enough sleep and avoiding harmful levels of alcohol and other drugs are some of the ways we can contribute to our physical and emotional health.

Support of family and friends

Studies have found that having a thriving social network of friends and family makes us healthier because the support of other people reduces the harmful effects of stress.

Further, older people who reported a greater sense of connection with family members were significantly less likely to endorse suicide ideation than were those who reported lower levels of family connectedness.

The loving relationships we enjoy with our family and friends will continue to enrich our life right until the end.

Strong social networks

Feeling lonely is a normal human emotion. Social isolation is different. A person who is socially disconnected can feel cut off from the world. When we feel like this for long periods it can be damaging to our health.

A desire for human connection is fundamentally hardwired into our psychology. That is why it’s important to participate in community activities and to accept social invitations.

Lifeline Research Foundation executive director Alan Woodward says. ‘It would seem one of the key things around quality of life and happiness for older people is their perceptions around how they fit socially and with their families, how society regards them — the attitudes towards older people — and their real ability to participate in life.’

Having a purpose in life

Purposeful living has been linked to aspects of wellbeing, like a longer life, lower risk of disease, better sleep and healthier behaviours.

Having a purpose in life helps older people maintain their function and independence. It can provide the motivation that drives them toward a more satisfying future.

Having a purpose — whether large or small, whether we reach the objective or continue to strive for it — informs our existence in important ways that may impact physical and mental health and overall well-being. 

Having a purpose takes on added meaning in a group activity. When we are connected to a group and feel responsibility for other people, that sense of purpose and meaning encourages us to take better care of ourselves and take fewer risks.

Some key points to consider:

Suicide in older people happens more often than we’re willing to admit.

Social isolation, a problem for many older people, can lead to physical decline, mental health issues such as depression, and even suicide.

To help support older adults’ wellbeing, psychologists recommend increasing their access to exercise, human connection, and medical and psychiatric treatment.

Simply spending time with an older person may do them a world of good.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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