Suicide among seniors a real but overlooked problem
Published Friday, October 7, 2011 12:21AM EDT
When discussing suicide, one aspect that often gets forgotten or ignored is that seniors have some of the highest suicide rates in the country.
The focus might often be on young people, but the highest rate of completed suicide in Canada is among men over the age of 80.
Some doctors now worry that those numbers will rise, as the number of older adults grows in Canada and baby boomers struggle to accept the ravages of aging.
Every week, 10 seniors over the age of 60 die by suicide in Canada. But their deaths rarely grab the media spotlight.
Iris Stanley is one senior who has considered suicide. A once-active senior who loved hiking and swimming, Stanley, 71, had trouble coping after she came down with a number of illnesses at once and ended up in a wheelchair. Her decline was so sudden and so severe, she prepared to end her own life.
"I was frustrated and angry at my own body. I had always lived an active healthy life, I was totally floored," she tells CTV News.
"My life to me was not enjoyable. It wasn't what I wanted or what I expected. It just didn't seem worthwhile anymore."
Stanley won't say how or what she planned to do. Stanley did say, however, she changed her mind after thinking about what her suicide would do to her adult children.
"I sat there and had everything ready (for the suicide). I thought of my son and my daughter, and they weren't prepared for it. They weren't aware of how ill I was," she says. "So I didn't do it."
Instead, she looked for, and found, help for her depression.
Stanley is just one of many Canadians who has found the stress of aging can be too much. Many seniors have to cope with illness as they age, as well as the stress of losing spouses and friends, and their own independence.
Dr. Leon Kagan, the director of Geriatric Psychiatry at the University of Alberta, says many seniors cope well with aging. It's when they begin to lose their independence that they become at risk for depression.
"What makes them vulnerable to suicide is, I would say, the isolation that develops, more than anything," he says.
"These older individuals are having everything taken away from them in terms of their work, their health, their families and finding their role diminished…. And for some of them, taking their own life seems like it might be the only option that they have."
Dr. Marnin Heisel, a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor in the Departments of Psychiatry at the University of Western Ontario, says part of the problem is that many doctors aren't always looking for suicide risk among their older patients. And many seniors don't realize they can seek out mental health support.
"Suicide can be a hidden problem. We tend not to hear about in older adults. It tends to be an issue that gets neglected," he says.
For those who don't find help, the results can be tragic. Like the case of Erich Mueller, who sank into a deep depression at the age of 68 and took his wife Cathy's life before taking his own. And Irene Swaniga, a wife and grandmother who ended her life to the utter shock of her family.
Psychologist Heisel says there are worries that suicide rates will rise as more baby boomers hit their senior years and face the frailty of old age.
"Even if the rates of suicide remain the same, the actual numbers affected will go up tremendously," he notes.
"There is urgency to this," he adds. "This is a population that is growing quickly. These are issues that have to be dealt with."
Doctors say there are effective counselling and medication treatments that can help.
"There is a growing body of evidence that shows psychotherapy and medication can be highly effective at reducing the risk of suicide," said Heisel.
Iris was treated at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, with a two-days-a-week, five-month program that helps seniors suffering from depression.
"It helped me so much because I could deal with my depression," she says. "I learned how to recognize when I was starting to feel down again and that I could ask for help."
She adds: "I feel very lucky. I have had the help. My friends, my family physician helped me. I wouldn't be here otherwise."
The best advice for those with aging parents and friends who are feeling depressed comes from Iris herself: "Make sure you talk to them. Don't leave them alone for too long. You need to find out what is wrong."
With a report from CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro ad producer Elizabeth St. Philip