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Suicide experts: Don’t forget the elderly during National Suicide Awareness Prevention Month

A few thousand people walked around Canalside for suicide awareness earlier this month as part of the annual Out of the Darkness Walk. Two weeks ago, Niagara Falls was illuminated in yellow, the color for suicide prevention.


Amongst all the outreach happening in Buffalo and throughout the country this month for National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, suicide prevention experts say it’s important not to forget about one group in particular: the elderly. 


“We don’t tend to think about senior citizens as being at a high risk of suicide,” said Missy Stolfi, Western New York area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which holds the annual Out of the Darkness Walk. 


Senior citizens are actually one of the most at-risk groups for suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people 85 and over have the second-highest suicide rate of any age group.


In fact, the latest CDC data shows people 75 and over, as well as those aged 55 to 64, have higher suicide rates than teens, young adults and people in their 20s and 30s. 


Men 65 and over are often considered the most at-risk demographic for suicide. 


There’s a somewhat brighter picture locally. The elderly suicide rates in New York state, as well as Erie County, are about half that of the national average. 


Garra Lloyd-Lester, director of community and coalition initiatives for the Suicide Prevention Center of New York State, said it’s difficult to say exactly why that is.


“Historically in New York state, across the lifespan, our rates of suicide have been lower, which is good news,” he said, adding that the Northeast as a whole typically has lower suicide rates than the Mountain West,  “but always important to remember that one loss by suicide is one too many.”


As for why the elderly die of suicide so often, they commonly have traits associated with suicide risk, according to Dr. Yeates Conwell, a University of Rochester professor and expert in elderly suicide.


Conwell said there are five common traits in particular that put seniors at risk, which he calls “the five D’s.” They are depression, disease, disability, disconnectedness and access to deadly means, such as firearms and medication.


Conwell, and others at the university’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide, are particularly interested in the connection between disability and disconnectedness.


“So many older people, as they accrue medical illnesses that cause functional impairment, withdraw for lots of reasons,” Conwell said. “Some people can become very socially isolated, and that we clearly know predisposes both to depression and to suicide risk.”


However, while seniors are at an increased risk of depression, both Conwell and Stolfi noted that depression is not considered a natural part of aging.


“It can be really easy for us to chalk it up to, ‘Well, they're sad and old and they live alone,’ but that doesn’t mean it has to be that way,” Stolfi said.


The local American Foundation for Suicide Prevention chapter has offered its suicide awareness presentation, Talk Saves Lives, at senior centers throughout Erie County over the last year, Stolfi said.


Conwell said outreach programs, as well as senior services programs that help the elderly with socialization and mobility, are key in the fight against elderly suicide.


He added elderly suicide will only be more of a public health concern in the coming years as baby boomers continue to age. The generation born after World War II has typically had higher suicide rates throughout their lifetime, and all members of the generation will be 65 and older by 2030.


“That’s the issue: this large number of people with this vulnerability (to suicide) — which we don’t fully understand — entering into older adulthood,” Conwell said. “So while we’ve seen some reduction in suicide rates in older people as an age group in recent decades, it’s certainly possible — and I think likely — that that is going to change as the baby boom cohort enters that time of life.”