Elder Suicide: the surprising numbers and how senior living helps prevent them

Suicide rates continue to rise in the US. Especially elder suicide.  

Living in a senior community can reduce the risk of elder suicide. Know the “red flag” behaviors that signal someone needs help. Find resources to prevent elder suicide.

What do the numbers say about elder suicide?

The statistics are frightening. Older adults are the highest risk group for suicide.

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy published a report on senior suicide. Research shows that older adults account for 18% of suicide deaths in the U.S. And the risk increase with age. The highest group completing suicide are 75 to 85 year-olds.

Older adults account for 18% of suicide deaths in the U.S. This is a disproportionate number because this demographic group only accounts for 15% of the total population.

The CDC reported 47,000 suicides took place in 2018. Of those deaths, 8,500 were 65 years and older.

Also, the association estimates that elderly suicides are under reported by 40%. Many suicides are what’s called “silent suicides”—overdoses, self-starvation, self-dehydration, and “accidents.”

The good news is that suicide rates are lower when elders live in senior communities. While any number is too high, only 4.28% of elder suicides happened while living in a senior community.  

In a supportive community, staff are attuned to resident behavior and causes leading to suicide. You, as a family member, can partner with the team in watching for distress signals.

What are some causes of elderly suicide?

Loneliness and isolation

The number of people aged 65+ who live alone has dramatically increased. In 1900 only 6% lived alone compared to 26% today. That amounts to about 12 million older Americans living in isolation. And most of them are women.

People are meant to be social creatures. We survive and thrive only when connected to others. But cultural shifts, industrialization, and mobilization have left seniors separated from family and community.

And, as seniors age, they lose friends, family, and partners to death. This leaves them lonely, socially isolated, and at risk of unresolved grief.

Moreover, research shows an increase in physical and mental illness due to loneliness. Some of these illnesses include, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, addiction, and cognitive decline. 

Important note: Being alone and loneliness are different things. Seniors living in retirement or assisted living communities can still feel lonely. Loneliness is a subjective feeling. It’s possible to feel lonely while surrounded by others.

Hint: Whether your loved one is in a senior community or not, watch for signs of loneliness. Note if they’re withdrawing socially and not participating. Talk to staff and ask for help in getting them involved or making recommendations.

One of the biggest advantages of living in a senior community is social interaction with peers. You can stay at home in your apartment as much as you want. And, right outside your door is a whole community to engage with. Things to do, people to see, and places to go!

Depression

There’s a false belief that depression is a normal part of aging. Not true.

Yes, there’s a lot of loss as we get older. It’s estimated that 80% of older adults suffer with chronic, often painful, diseases. And 77% have at least two diagnoses.

Understandably, the risk of depression increases with each illness, each loss.

But depression is not normal. It’s a treatable disease when recognized and acknowledged.

Unfortunately, seniors often mask their depression. Many fear admitting to feeling depressed. They consider it a character weakness; that others will think less of them. They’re afraid of being labeled with mental illness.

HINT: If your loved one is in a senior community, talk to the nurse or administrator. Go with your parent to their medical appointments. Voice concerns to their provider. 

Living in a senior community means there’s a team of professional support. People trained to notice depression and can make recommendations.

Fear of being a burden

The idea of old age can conjure up pictures of despair. The fear of being trapped in a bed, wheelchair, or institution creeps into our nightmares. We dread depending on others to feed and clean us.


We hate the thought of losing our autonomy. Many older adults would rather die by suicide than by a slow death of chronic illness.


Also, older adults worry about the costs of long-term care. They fear they’ll be unable to leave a financial legacy. And, they fear becoming a financial burden to family and community.


Hint: Reassure your loved one that they worked hard for their money. That their resources are for them and their care. Reassure them that there are programs to help in case they run out of money and need care. And, let them know you don’t consider them a burden.

What are some warning signs an elder is considering suicide?

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention urges families to become aware of the red flag behaviors and warning signs that a senior is considering suicide.

  • Stockpiling medication
  • A sudden desire to revise a will
  • Increased use of drugs and alcohol
  • Making statements of hopelessness
  • Saying they feel like they’re a burden
  • Talking about their pain and inability to go on
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Saying goodbye to family and friends
  • Giving things away

In the end

If you suspect depression and loneliness is an issue for someone you love, talk with them and get help. If you notice any warning signs of suicidal thoughts, talk with them. Share your concerns openly. Seek professional help.

Once your loved one is emotionally and mentally stable, broach the idea of moving to senior living. A community of peers, activities, and caring staff may be the difference in preventing an elderly suicide.

Where to get help


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