Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., and is an important problem among older adults who are especially vulnerable to suicide for a number of reasons. If someone you know is thinking about suicide, there are simple yet powerful steps you can take, including calling 988, to help save their life.
Suicide attempts by older adults are much more likely to result in death than among younger persons. Reasons include:
- Older adults plan more carefully and use more deadly methods.
- Older adults are less likely to be discovered and rescued.
- The physical frailty of older adults means they are less likely to recover from an attempt.
Suicide rates are particularly high among older men, with men ages 85 and older having the highest rate of any group in the country. Additional risk factors include:
- Grief over lost loved ones
- Loss of self-sufficiency
- Depression and other mental health problems
- Substance use problems (including prescription medications)
- Chronic illness, disability, and pain
- Social isolation
- Cognitive impairment
- Financial troubles
- Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy.
- Giving away beloved items or changing their will.
- Avoiding social activities.
- Neglecting self-care, medical regimens, and grooming.
- Exhibiting a preoccupation with death.
- Lacking concern for personal safety.
How to support someone with suicidal thoughts
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline outlines five action steps you can take if you know an older adult who is thinking about suicide.
- Ask. Don’t be afraid to be direct with the person at risk.
Ask questions like, “Are you thinking about suicide?” and “How can I help you?” to initiate a conversation in a supportive and unbiased way. Be sure to listen carefully to their answers and acknowledge their emotional pain. Help the person stay focused on all the reasons why they should want to keep living.
- Be there. If you’re able to, be physically present for the person in order to ease feelings of isolation and provide a sense of connectedness.
If a face-to-face visit is not possible, be there for them via phone or video calls. Work with the individual to identify others who may be willing to lend their help. Be sure not to make any promises that you are unable to keep.
- Keep them safe. Find out if the person has already made any attempts on their life.
Do they have a specific plan or timing in mind? Do they have access to their planned method of self-harm? Learning the answers to these questions can help you understand whether this individual is in immediate danger. In general, the more detailed a person’s suicide plan is, the higher their risk. Someone who is at imminent risk for suicide may require more intensive intervention. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (988) can serve as a valuable resource for helping you determine the next steps.
- Help them connect. If a senior in your life is thinking about suicide, it’s important for them to establish support systems they can rely on now and in future moments of crisis.
This includes suicide prevention hotlines such as the Lifeline, as well as resources available in their local community. Find out if the at-risk person is currently seeing a mental health counselor. If not, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a searchable, confidential directory of mental health providers across the U.S.
- Follow up. Studies have shown that following up can reduce suicide-related deaths in high-risk populations.
Once you’ve had an initial conversation with the vulnerable person and helped them establish a support network, make sure to check in. This can be done with a quick phone call, text message, or even a card. Ask if there is anything else you can do to help them get through this difficult time. The simple act of reaching out and showing you care can truly mean the difference between life and death.
Call the 988 suicide prevention hotline
A universal dialing code launched in July 2022 is broadening access to lifesaving suicide prevention and crisis services. Dialing 988 connects people in crisis (or concerned friends, family, and caregivers) directly to the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, where counselors provide free, unbiased, and confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Older adults who call or send a text message to 988 will speak to a trained counselor from the existing Suicide Prevention Lifeline network. Located in 200 crisis centers all over the country, these counselors are experienced in responding to people in emotional distress, including those with suicidal intent. Dialing 988 is just like dialing 911 for emergency response or 411 for information services. There’s no need to dial any other digits besides those three.
We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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