Our youth–centered culture promotes beauty, vitality and an energetic, fast-paced lifestyle. The adulation of the young and the beautiful is not new but as our health care improves and we live longer the disparity between generations has been accentuated. This has left many elderly people disenfranchised, marginalized, rejected and even suicidal. How can we ameliorate this situation and help our elders live longer with dignity?
With medical advances, improved treatments and more people adhering to a healthier lifestyle our lifespan has been significantly extended. There are currently over 75 million octogenarians on the planet, and by 2050 there will be almost 329 million. Yet, our social support systems lag behind the aging population’s needs. Though most people wish to have a long and healthy life, many elders become discouraged and even suicidal.
A 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that 12.4 per 100,000 Americans take their own lives compared to 14.9 per 100,000 seniors over 65 years of age. According to Patrick Ardore, the Director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention in San Francisco elder suicides are under-reported.
In “Suicides in Late Life” Drs. Kimberly Van Orden and Yeates Conwell stated, “Suicide in late life is an enormous public health problem that will likely increase in severity as adults of the baby boom generation age.” They advised, “Clinicians should be vigilant for psychiatric illness (especially depression), physical illness, pain, functional impairment and social disconnectedness.”
It is easy to understand why some elderly individuals lose their will to live. In addition to physical limitations, health issues and pain or suffering, seniors may lose their sense of contribution, effectiveness, productivity, purpose and meaning in their lives. When their autonomy is compromised some elders resent being a burden to their families or feel lonely enough to embrace the alternative of terminating their lives.
Being acknowledged, respected, liked and valued by others are the most powerful sources of our will to live. Researchers Van Orden and Conwell concluded, ‘’We suggest that one mechanism shared by all suicide prevention shown to reduce the incident of late-life suicide is the promotion of connectedness.”
A personal experience of mine confirmed the importance of personal attention and caring. Greeting a formerly unknown lady on the porch of a nursing home highlighted this point for me. When I smiled at her and asked her how she was doing on that beautiful day, she looked at me and said: “You are the most wonderful person in the world.” To my inquiry she replied, “You looked at me, smiled and really cared. I am a widow and my only son lives elsewhere and never calls me. It really doesn’t matter if I live or die because no one cares.”
Befriend an elderly person:
- Accept that human connection is a most powerful motivator for life.
- Affirm elderly people and treat them with respect and kindness. You may save their lives.
- Choose to befriend a senior whenever possible.