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Visions Journal

Depression, suicide darken the later years

Chris Johnson

Reprinted from "Men's" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (5), p. 8

A farmer in his 70s had been working in his Aldergrove field on a sunny day last week.

His neighbour of 30 years noticed nothing wrong. A few hours later, when the farmer’s wife came home, she found him hanging in the barn.

Talking to a reporter this week, the neighbours shook their heads and held back tears, trying to figure out why he killed himself. The Sun has decided not to publish the names at the family’s request.

The man’s family and his neighbours are not alone in grieving the loss of an elder or wondering what caused him to take his life.

But a Health Services Ministry study released this week reveals that contrary to popular belief, seniors, not teenagers, are the most likely age group to kill themselves.

Titled A Profile of Seniors in British Columbia, it says men over 65 are three times more likely to kill themselves than males between 10 and 24, which is often considered the most suicide-prone age group.

Elderly men, especially widowed, divorced, or single males, are five times more suicide-prone than women of their age. The suicide rate for women varies only slightly across age groups.

In total, seniors account for about 12% of all suicides in Canada, at a rate of 26 per 100,000 in British Columbia, according to 2002 statistics, the report says.

“We often think of teenage men dejected over their girlfriends,” said Suzanne Germain, communications manager with the Ministry of Health. “That’s not really the profile.”

Researchers and suicide counsellors say the bad news also has good news within it.

They say suicide rates are high among the elderly because people are living longer, making them more vulnerable to illness leading to depression, a leading cause of suicide. But they say they’re not surprised by the report’s findings.

“It’s a serious problem that often gets overlooked,” said Jennifer White, a mental health therapist at Vancouver’s Safer Counselling Service, which helps potential suicide victims.

“The media often pay attention to teenagers. But we need to do something about seniors as well. There’s almost an attitude of acceptance, that they’ve lived a long life.”

Gloria Gutman, director of gerontology at Simon Fraser University, says suicide rates are higher for men than for women, especially among retirees.

“They [senior males] have farther to fall than women. The vast majority of men have been in the labour force [longer] than women, at least until recently.”

Gutman, who is also president of the International Association of Gerontology, says retirees sometimes can’t cope with losing income, status—and self-esteem—after ending their careers.

“In our society, there is a tendency to stigmatize retired people. You’re at the top of your prowess and profession at age 64 and three-quarters, but when you cross the line, somehow your value drops, particularly for people who define who they are by what they do.”

Gutman says society can help by prohibiting mandatory retirement at 65.

The real picture could also be worse than the statistics. The report admits that it’s hard to know precise suicide rates because many families will report other causes of death rather than saying a loved one took their own life.

Sadly, many people could have been saved. Up to 90% of victims struggled with depression, substance abuse or a disorder that could have been diagnosed, says the report.

White says family members can help troubled elders, especially those who have lost a spouse, by looking for telltale signs of depression, including social withdrawal, disruptions to sleeping and eating, difficulty concentrating, and persistent feeling of sadness and worthlessness. ...

isolation and loneliness (adapted from www.agingincanada.ca)

Researchers in Manitoba published a report in January this year, looking at social isolation and older men. Here are some highlights from the Manitoba report:

 

  • Older widowed men don’t maintain self-care practices such as taking medications, may resist accepting Meals-on-Wheels services, and resort to unhealthy coping strategies such as alcohol and gambling

  • Older men are particularly vulnerable to isolation and loneliness when they experience difficulties adjusting to retirement (farmers retiring, in particular may find this transition difficult.)

  • Social isolation and loneliness can cause other health problems for older men, in addition to depression—isolated men tended to have four and more chronic illnesses

  • Being alone leaves the person with more time to reflect inward and dwell on problems, making one more resistant to change, as there is no one to make suggestions or share ideas, and no opportunity to observe what steps others are taking relative to health.

  • The degree to which an older man feel lonely is influenced by widow-hood, poor life satisfaction, chronic ill-nesses and feeling that seniors always receive negative management

 
Notes

Reprinted with permission from The Vancouver Sun, June 10, 2004, p. B

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