The numbers tell the story of a secret, self-inflicted slaughter. This country’s elderly kill themselves at higher rates than young people. Yet no one seems to care – or at least to be paying attention.“When we talk about suicide, we immediately think about adolescents,” said Jarrod Hindman, the suicide prevention manager for Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment. “But the highest rates are among older adults.”
In 2005, the suicide rate among Coloradans ages 15 to 24 was 19.3 per 100,000 people. The rate for adults 75 to 84 was 28.7 per 100,000. In 2006, the rates dropped to 16 and 19.2, respectively.
The national average for suicides among all Americans is roughly 11 per 100,000.
Across the country, suicide rates among the elderly generally run ahead of the young and the national average. But self-inflicted deaths among the aging rage in the West. Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control for the years 1999 to 2004 showed the U.S. suicide rate for folks over 65 at 15.11 per 100,000. In Colorado for the same period, the suicide rate was 22.32 – 48 percent higher.
In terms of violent deaths, the statistics turn even uglier. In 2004, the two leading causes of violent death among Coloradans ages 65 to 85 were suicide by firearms and suicide by poisoning. In general, guns are the method of choice among men, poison among women.
The point is that murder ranked a distant third to suicide as a cause of violent death among the state’s elderly. So if old people need to be afraid of being victims of violence, they need to be afraid of themselves.
The irony and ignorance exposed by these statistics call for serious intervention.
The Baby Boomers are just approaching 65.
“If this demographic is not targeted,” said Hindman, “the overall state rate (of suicide) could go up because there are more people in the age group.”
In short, increased numbers of elderly in the Baby Boom’s demographic bulge portend a horrific rise in the body count in Colorado and across the country.
That prospect raises important issues in national, state and local health care debates.
“The stigma around suicide and mental health is magnified around older adults,” said Hindman. The elderly often don’t want to talk about either issue.
Neither do the rest of us. Or if we do, we justify the slaughter.
As a nation and a state, “we feel that depression is just a part of aging,” said Hindman.
“A lot of (elderly suicide) has to do with pain and social isolation.”
Then, there’s the moral quandary. If grandpa can’t walk and no one comes to visit, why shouldn’t he have the right to blow his head off? As mean as it sounds, that’s what America has boiled some of this debate down to.
The right to die is a complex issue.
After watching my 86-year-old mother’s body hang on through a decade of ever-more debilitating dementia until she can neither speak coherently nor see well nor walk nor feed herself nor control her bladder and bowels, questions of the quality of life reign supreme for me. I’d rather be dead than live as she does.
Hindman, whose agency is funding a couple of programs targeting elderly suicide, takes a different approach. The state money goes to what he calls “gatekeepers” – people who deal directly with older adults.
State grants will help “teach people how to ask if people are feeling suicidal and refer them to treatment,” he said.
The grants seek to explode another myth, said Hindman: “Depression is not a normal part of aging. There is help if you feel suicidal.”
The key to addressing suicide among the aging rests in that assumption.
Americans still don’t really know about the suicide epidemic among the aging population. But when they find out, people in this country must work their way through a moral mine field.
“There’s still the notion that (elderly suicide) is acceptable behavior,” Hindman said. “There’s a lot of agreement that if you’re old and tired, you should be able to kill yourself. My question is this: Would that person still want to die, if they could lessen their pain?”
With Baby Boomers headed toward a vast killing field, the answer is about to become a national dilemma.
Still to come in this occasional series: Diagnosing depression in the elderly. Dealing with despair and pain. Balancing the will to live with the right to die.