Extreme despair and suicide among our country’s older adults

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This column is a very difficult one for me to write. It may not be easy for you to read. Itís about suicide. I last wrote about suicide in April 2010. Iím ten years older now, and right in the age- and gender demographic where suicide happens more frequently. That hits closer to home.

I begin with a brief story. Helen (not her real name) and I met when she was a new resident at the nursing home where I was director of social services. She came in simply for rehabilitation services. But somewhere along the line, she decided it was time for her to die.

So she began to refuse food and drink. As persistently and caringly as we could, we tried to get her to change her mind. But she didnít, and within a fairly short time, she died.

In my limited experience, Helenís story is very unusual. But I suspect itís less unusual than I might think. Suicide among older adults happens more often than any of us wants to know about.

I strongly suspect older adults whose extreme despair brings them to the point of actively considering suicide, are usually quite ambivalent about what they are doing. (I think Helenís calculated and determined choice was less common than many others who make life-ending decisions.)

As I suggested early, older white males appear to be the highest-risk demographic for persons who complete suicide. I recently read the summary of a 2016 article in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. It focused on 3 ďclustersĒ of persons about 80 years old who died by suicide.

Generally, those persons fit into one of these clusters: 1) married or widowed; 2) persons living alone or isolated; and 3) persons living with dementia or severe depression. I canít say these descriptions surprised me. Another study I read suggested similar dynamics with other words.

Factors in some measure with persons who died by suicide include: psychiatric and neuro-cognitive disorders, social exclusion, bereavement, cognitive impairment, psychological and/or physical pain, decision-making and cognitive inhibitions and chronic physical illnesses

I told you that this column wouldnít be easily to read.

One reason I even bring this difficult topic up is that we will be looking at suicide at our next Geezer Forum. That happens next Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2:30-4 p.m. in the community room of Columbia Bank. Our resource for the forum is Catherine Perusse.

Catherine is a licensed clinical professional counselor who has dealt for many years, both professionally and personally, with persons whose lives are burdened with extreme despair. So her time will explore with us some of the dynamics underlying suicide. Additionally she will share some of the preventive measures and signs we can be alert to.

Since most who read this column will not (letís be real here.) will not attend the Geezer Forum, I want to identify one resource available to persons in crisis in North Idaho. I believe Catherine helped get this agency started: North Idaho Crisis Center.

Located in Coeur díAlene, it has a 24/7 crisis hotline number ó 1-208-625-4884. Trained mental health professionals are on call to listen and respond to people in crisis.

I do hope you will attend ďAn Extreme Despair: Some Realities About Suicide Among Older AdultsĒ next Tuesday, Jan. 28. Join us so you can be better aware of how to respond to a family member or friend who may be in extreme despair some day.

Paul Graves, M.Div., is lead geezer-in-training for Elder Advocates, a consulting ministry on aging issues. Contact Paul at 208-610-4971 or elderadvocates@nctv.com

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