Suicide is a reality that affects people of all origins and backgrounds, of all social classes and, obviously, of all ages. However, at each stage of life, voluntary death presents some particularities in terms of risk factors and possibilities for prevention. Therefore, today we explore suicide in the elderly and its associated characteristics.
Suicide is the leading cause of unnatural death in Spain. This trend is increasingly common in the elderly population.
To understand the causes we need to resort to biological, psychological and social factors. We are facing a complex phenomenon, even if it is preventable in many cases.
Suicide in the elderly and its peculiarities
Suicidal behavior ranges from suicidal ideation to planning and completing voluntary death. However, it does not present equally in all age groups.
Focusing on the elderly (people over the age of 60-65), we will say that they have the following particularity:
- The older adult plans the suicide well and it does it fast. Impulsive suicides are less frequent.
- they hardly show signs and tend to hide their intentions until the last moment.
- There are fewer suicide attempts because more often than not they are fatal. This is probably due to the use of more lethal methods (such as suspended or vacuum precipitation).
- Unlike other age groups, the elderly often resorts to passive suicide. That is, letting yourself die by not eating food, not taking prescribed medications, or neglecting your health and hygiene.
Causes and risk factors
The decision to end one’s life never has a single cause. Those who commit suicide generally do so to get rid of a pain they cannot handle and consider that it will last forever. Taking one’s life appears in his mind as the only option to stop suffering or abandon a meaningless existence.
However, older adults experience a number of psychosocial conditions that influence the emergence of suicidal behaviour. Therefore, the following are some of the major risk factors.
Retirement is often the milestone towards old age. This is how we live on a subjective level, like the change that transforms us into older adults and introduces us to the last stage of life. When we retire we lose our role as workers; one that usually deeply marks people’s identity.
We disconnect from that work environment, lose human connections and stop feeling important and productive. Daily routines change and it can feel empty.
It’s not the same for everyone, but many people find it difficult to accept this transition and all the differences it makes in their day to day. If not handled properly, it can cause huge inconvenience.
Physical deterioration and addiction
As we age, it is normal for our health to deteriorate. We are no longer as agile as before, neither physically nor mentally.
We can lose sight, hearing and mobility. This makes us more and more dependent people. Also, the situation is aggravated if there is constant disabling illness or pain.
Beyond the physical pain, feeling that we can no longer look after ourselves, that we are a burden to others, can affect us. This is one of the major problems experienced by the elderly.
The death of a loved one can occur at any time in life, but in this stage of senescence, losses are more frequent and constant for a mere reason of age. The elderly may be forced to face the death of their spouse, siblings and other relatives, their friends…
Each loss generates a duel and confronts us with a reality of absences. If these are linked together or occur very closely, the emotional impact is multiplied and can be difficult to manage.
Business contacts have been lost, several deaths of close people have occurred and, moreover, it is common for family members not to spend much time accompanying the elderly. Since we are social beings, this imposed loneliness weighs heavily and can have a negative impact on mood.
Feeling useless and without purpose
It is not easy to assume that we are needed less and less. Where before we were productive workers, dedicated parents and very active people, today those roles have changed and we can feel a lack of purpose. Many seniors perceive themselves as useless and useless.
On many occasions, suicide in the elderly is precipitated by some underlying psychological disorder; especially depression. It’s estimated that this pathology affects about 14% of over-65s, which is why it is one of the major risk factors.
Prevention of suicide in the elderly
Although sufficiently complete programs do not yet exist nor adequate attention is paid to suicide in the elderly, this can be avoided in many cases. The measures to be taken must be aimed at mitigating the impact of the risk factors and strengthening the protective factors.
Therefore, some of the main recommendations are as follows:
- Promote active ageing, optimizing the health, safety and participation of older people.
- Seek human contact and social networking and support. Avoid loneliness and isolation.
- Take on family responsibilities.
- Promote autonomy and independence as much as possible. For this, good medical and social care must be available.
- Participate in rewarding and fun activities.
- Early diagnosis and treatment of depression. Healthcare professionals must be well prepared to identify possible warning signs, as a high proportion of older adults who commit suicide visit their physician days before attempting to take their own lives.
In short, to prevent suicide in the elderly It is a task we face as a society, responding to the specific needs of this vital phase and offering useful solutions. Being aware of the impact of loneliness, lack of support and purpose in old age is crucial to making appropriate changes.
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