Seniors and suicide

Created date

February 14th, 2019
Erickson Living Chief Medical Officer Matt Narratt, M.D., met with people moving to Windsor Run.

Dr. Narrett leads the medical team at all Erickson Living communities. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he has been providing care for seniors for over three decades.

Perhaps the cause of death that is the most disturbing and difficult to grieve is suicide. In 2016 suicide claimed 45,000 lives and rose over 30% in more than half the states over the past two decades. When touched by suicide even beyond family members or friends, we are all deeply impacted and may ask ourselves the question, “Could we somehow have prevented it?”

Seniors are particularly vulnerable to suicide. In fact, individuals above the age of 85, especially men, have the highest rate of completed suicide. This is understandable as the risk factors for suicide include depression, loss, isolation, and feelings of being a burden or trapped due to illness or situation. When considering the risk factor of loss alone, seniors experience loss due to deaths among family and friends, as well as personal loss of physical, occupational, and cognitive abilities. These factors, coupled with financial and relationship challenges and upcoming stressful events such as medical testing or surgery, put seniors at risk.

Effective resources in place

Fortunately, there is an opportunity to help if you’re feeling desperate or if you know of someone you are concerned about. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes a five-step approach in their June 2018 CDC Vital Signs monthly report: ask, keep them safe, be there, help them connect, and follow up (
/vitalsigns). The report also references the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Program called Be the One to Save a Life ( Your medical provider can be an important resource; studies show that older adults are more likely to verbalize suicide intent, with about 50% of seniors visiting a provider within 30 days of suicide. Whenever you visit your physician, please share your personal feelings and concerns, especially if you’re suffering. If you’re concerned about someone, reach out to them, make an appointment with their doctor, and join them for the visit. Asking for help is often the critical first step to connecting with the many community and health care resources that are ready and want to help.

Keeping safe and reducing risk is also a big part of prevention and is described as the second of the CDC’s five steps. Because seniors have the highest rate of gun ownership, gun safety is fundamentally important, and standard recommended measures include keeping the gun unloaded and locked in a cabinet and storing any ammunition in an entirely separate location. Please share the fact that you own a gun with your provider and your family who can support you with its management and safety.

Seniors who develop dementia and possess firearms may also represent risk to themselves and others as memory loss is often associated with depression, poor judgment, and impulsivity. While perceived as difficult to address, gun safety, just like driver safety, should be discussed in a candid way. Family members and medical providers often shy away from the conversation, but it is just another part of providing good care and guidance.

If you find yourself feeling down, depressed, hopeless, or with little interest or pleasure in doing things—or if you know of someone you are concerned about—please reach out, share how you feel, and seek help. That first step may literally be lifesaving.


In good health,

Dr. Narrett

Dr. Narrett leads the medical team at all Erickson Living communities. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he has been providing care for seniors for over three decades.