Abby: Suicide rate of older men an overlooked tragedy
Dear Abby: My elderly father’s dearest friend committed suicide yesterday. He shot himself in the head. The family wasn’t even aware that he was depressed. Dad has lost three wonderful friends this way in recent years. He’s heartbroken thinking that his buddies were secretly suffering.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of suicide for men 70 and older in the U.S. is more than double the overall suicide rate. Yet, with all of our suicide prevention efforts, this high-risk group seems to be ignored.
How can we help prevent these tragedies? What are the signs of depression in older men? And what can families do if they suspect depression in “Dad,” “Gramps” or “Uncle John?” Thank you for any help you can provide.
Van in Massachusetts
Dear Van: Please convey to your father how sorry I am for his loss. I think the first thing people have to remember is that men in general do not manifest depression the way women do because women are more open about sharing their feelings. Men, particularly older men, were not raised to do that because they were taught that expressing emotion was “weak,” so they stay silent. And men who were once breadwinners, active and vital, can become depressed when they retire.
Among the risk factors are:
■Having lost a wife or significant other
■Being alone and isolated
■Concern about being a burden
■ Substance abuse (alcohol or prescription drugs)
■Firearms in the house
Signs to look for include:
■Lack of energy
■Lack of motivation
■Less interest in eating or getting out of the house
■Loss of interest in activities the person once enjoyed.
A common mistake people make is thinking these things are happening because a person is old. If you observe a change in behavior, it is all right to ask the person what’s going on. Keep in mind that people who feel connected are less likely to harm themselves. Isolation is the enemy. Visit them, or take them out so they won’t feel alone.
It’s also important to help seniors meet others they can relate to, particularly if their friends are dying off. A senior center can provide a place to socialize and meet new people. Exercise is important, too, and many senior centers provide exercise facilities.
Equally important is volunteering. Older men are valuable assets to the community and should be encouraged to regard themselves that way. They have a lifetime of experience to offer, which should not be wasted. By helping these men get and stay connected, you could actually be saving a life.
A final thought: As people age, they often have physical problems that are associated with depression. (Heart disease is one.) If you need advice about how to approach someone about your worries, an excellent resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The toll-free number is 800-273-8255.
Contact Dear Abby at DearAbby.com or P.O. Box 69440, Los Angeles, CA 90069.