When two elderly neighbors, friends and people I agreed with on many social issues turned up dead in their home, it wracked the whole community. Why? – was the biggest question, and then what could we have done? Suicide at any age is fraught with questions, regrets and wishes that will never be fulfilled on the part of the friends and survivors. What this incident told me is that we hesitate to ever cross the line of stepping into one another’s intent. We fear bringing up the subject, we fear what we may hear and we fear we cannot handle the truth. I also think we just don’t want to step over that threshold of getting too close to another and perhaps not knowing what to do with the answer we might hear.
Contrary to the notion that young adult men have the highest suicide rate, senior men over the age of 85 are the highest percentages of suicides in this country. The rate for white men over age 85 is 52.3 per 100, 000. What is it about the United States that we don’t see this as a failure of our social mores? Why is senior suicide viewed as less tragic? And, of course, what can we do to turn the tide on this prevalence?
Here are my humble thoughts on this topic for the population I dearly love and am happy to be a part of.
In our culture in the United States, we tend to glorify the young and the beautiful, which frankly is not most of us. And we tend to want to isolate and not be reminded of aging in any way. And yet the over 65 portion of our population collectively have more wealth, wisdom and skills than can be imagined. What a resource we neglect to interact with!
In addition, we tend to not want to acknowledge failure or frailty including mental health issues and depression. There are several ways to look upon aging. As you might guess I choose to look at the rosier side. But realistically, aging is tough and tougher still in a culture that does not want to look at making it better. Aging includes many losses. Elderly people have generally lost their status with their retirement, often their senses are dulled or unclear yet frequently their intellect and wit are strong. They have so much to offer. A hundred years ago, retired people lived only a decade or so. Now our seniors are often living into their ninth decade. That means that potentially for one third of their lives, they have been retired, out of the social workforce and network and often with lives that feel less meaningful.
I tried retirement for three months and really felt quite lost. With retirement from a career of nursing my sense of purpose as a giver and a nurturer was gone. Some say that nurses never give up being nurturers. When I was asked, “what do you do,” I was completely stumped. So, I came out of my short retirement to consult with seniors.
One of my first clients told me his biggest concern was that he and his wife would outlive their funds. That comment really made me step back and think about the hard reality that so many face. It seems to me that our culture needs to rethink and redesign how we manage this dilemma. Why not utilize this fabulous resource of people with an on-going sense of purpose and contribution? Why not figure out ways to continue to reap the benefit of their knowledge and collective wisdom? Why not have opportunities for them to step back to less stress and responsibility to support roles that not only keep them involved but also earning an income?
As a species, we are wired to feel needed, respected and to have a purpose in life. Why not utilize that population of knowledge and competence to tutor, mentor and consult with us sharing their unique talents? Some studies have shown that interactivity of this population of seniors with school-aged children helped both populations to succeed and reduced health concerns of the seniors. What is the downside?
So moving forward perhaps, at least in our little Cache Valley, we can take some steps to reach out to seniors and to dare to risk taking a chance to help them adjust to their golden years with purpose, intent and a feeling of self worth instead of feeling like they have been put out to pasture. Maybe each of us should initiate the first step in our own way.