Suicide On the Rise Among Senior Americans

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, this recognition event calls for an open dialog about a national epidemic that, more and more often, is striking our elders.

Senior man is sitting alone at the dining table in his home, with a worried expression on his face.

The recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were the just the latest high-profile celebrity cases calling attention to the increasing rate of suicide in the U.S.—up 30 percent in the last 20 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Suicide among younger people has received a lot of media coverage. But did you know that the suicide rate is highest among older adults? Seniors are more likely to attempt suicide, and they are more likely to succeed, according to the American Geriatrics Society.

As is the case with younger victims, an untreated mental health condition may be a factor in the suicide of an older adult. Seniors are also more likely to suffer from painful and disabling health conditions. They are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, sometime as free-standing illnesses, or more often in tandem with troubling circumstances—failing health, financial worries, loneliness, loss of a spouse or other loved ones, or a sense of meaninglessness in life.

What can family and friends do to lower the risk of suicide in elder loved ones?

Know the risk factors. The CDC says that about half of the 45,000 people who die by suicide each year have a known mental health condition. Other factors include relationship problems, substance abuse, financial and legal problems, decreased independence and health problems.

Know the warning signs, and take talk seriously. Here are warning signs to be alert for:

  • Threats or comments about wanting to die or kill themselves
  • Expressions of hopelessness, feeling trapped or feeling like they are a burden
  • Social isolation and loneliness
  • Putting their affairs in order and giving things away
  • Increased anxiety and mood shifts
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Expression of feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Buying a firearm, collecting pills or otherwise looking for a way to access lethal means
  • Sleeping much more or much less

Be there for your loved one. Encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling. Talk to their doctor if possible. Help them connect with a mental health professional. Let them know they can call you any time. If they don’t call you, call them. And help them maintain social connections. Spending time with others is the best way to raise our spirits and maintain a sense of purpose in life.

Urge your loved one to seek help. If your loved one is experiencing feelings of prolonged sadness, helplessness or lack of energy, and seems no longer interested in the activities they once enjoyed, they should be evaluated by their healthcare provider. While older adults are at high risk of depression, the condition can easily go undetected in the senior population. And the stigma associated with mental illness, while it is lessening today, may keep older adults from reporting symptoms and seeking treatment. Assure your loved one that their feelings are nothing to be ashamed of. Depression is treatable with counseling, medications and/or lifestyle changes.

Talk to your loved one about alcohol and drug abuse. More seniors these days are drinking too much, say experts. Overuse of alcohol can be a symptom of depression when a senior self-medicates—but on its own, alcohol also raises the risk of suicide. Today’s opioid crisis has hit seniors hard, as well. Addiction can lead to despair … and many seniors who take their lives do so with an overdose of opioid medications.

If your loved one has a gun

The CDC says that approximately half of all people who commit suicide do so with a firearm. Among older adults, this number is much higher: According to recent data from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center, 20 million seniors in the U.S. own guns, and 91 percent of seniors who take their lives use a firearm to do so. Especially when an older loved one has dementia, removing access to guns can save their life. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends removing guns from the house of a person with dementia; at a minimum, lock guns away and store ammunition in a separate place.

A special note about family caregivers

We sometimes read tragic stories about a family caregiver who takes their own life and the life of their loved one. Several studies show that the suicide rate is higher among adults who are family caregivers, especially those whose loved one is living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. Caregiving can be extremely stressful and emotionally exhausting. Many caregivers are dealing with their own health conditions and financial challenges. They struggle to balance their caregiving tasks and the responsibilities of their job. Caregivers should be urged to seek assistance, respite and counseling. Not being able to do it all alone is nothing to be ashamed of. A caregiver support group can also be greatly helpful.

For More Information

The National Institute of Mental Health (www.nami.org) is the sponsor of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and offers resources to help families identify warning signs that might mean a loved one is considering suicide.


If you need help for yourself, or you believe that someone you know is considering suicide, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8225) to speak to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, day or night. People with hearing loss can contact the Lifeline via TTY at 1-800-799-4TTY (4889). All calls are confidential. If you think a person is in immediate danger, call 911.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2018