September is, among many things, National Suicide Prevention Month. The numbers of young people who commit suicide are extremely disturbing and task forces are looking into preventative measures. The high rate of suicide among our military is also being studied in an attempt to stem these premature deaths. There is another age, however, where suicide is quietly occurring for any number of reasons. These suicides are among elders.
Suicide rates among the elderly would be hard to calculate, as many elders have a number of health issues that require medications that can kill them, if taken incorrectly. An accidental overdose related to memory issues may be blamed, when in reality this person could have committed suicide. We certainly don't want to put the stigma of suicide, for there is a stigma, on natural or accidental deaths, so erring on the conservative side is probably best. Still, some of these deaths may not be so accidental. They may be the result of depression and/or the feeling of hopelessness.
Recently, my state had a murder suicide that made local news. There have been several similar incidences throughout the last few years. In this case, as in several others, an elderly man isolated on a farm had been caring for his wife who had dementia. The wife was at a point where she needed more care than her husband could provide alone at home. Her husband, perhaps because he was depressed, or even as part of a pact with his wife, killed her and then himself. They died from gunshot wounds, so there was no question, in this case, that this was a murder/suicide.
Indeed, I heard many people comment with sympathy for the elder's family, but then wonder aloud if what the man did wasn't best for both of them. Is that view callous? Maybe. It's certainly ageism. Our society tends to put less value on the lives of the elderly than on the lives of younger people.
Those of us who've lived a number of decades generally do feel we've had the gift of decades and that it's unfair for the young to die first. The ageism that is embedded in our culture, however, leans more toward the fact that aged people have lost value to society. That is wrong.
Could this feeling of uselessness because of age become so embedded in our minds that as we age we value our own lives less? Many cultures revere their elders and look to them for wisdom. That viewpoint seems to have lost a lot of ground these days. How much do these cultural views affect our elders? How much does that attitude contribute to elder suicide?
The family of the couple above told the newspaper that the husband and wife were so close that they couldn't bear to be apart. Death likely seemed a way for them to stay together. Perhaps the family knew best, but it's still hard not to view this suicide, and others like it, as a societal failure.
If more support were given this couple, through social services and/or in-home services, perhaps the couple could have been relocated to an assisted living center, and the man could have gone on caring for his wife with the help of trained caregivers. This loving couple could possibly have enjoyed more time together.
These elder suicides shouldn't go unnoticed just because the people are aged. Hearing about these endings saddens me, as I wonder, "Could we, as a society, do better?" Surely this loving couple, and many others like them, deserve a more dignified path to the end of life.
Published On: September 25, 2010