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Suicide Prevention For Older Adults


What do I need to know about suicide prevention for older adults?

An older person may see suicide as the only way to escape emotional or physical pain and suffering. You can help provide emotional support for him and get the help he needs. Learn to recognize warning signs that the person may be considering suicide. Find resources to help prevent the person from attempting to take his life.

What should I do if I think the person is considering suicide?

Call 911 if you feel the person is at immediate risk of suicide, or if he talks about an active suicide plan. Assume that he intends to carry out his plan. Resources are available to help you and the person. The following are some things you can do:

  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) .
  • Call the Suicide Hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) .
  • Contact the person's therapist. His healthcare provider can give you a list of therapists if he does not have one.
  • Keep medicines, weapons, and alcohol out of the person's reach. Do not leave the person alone. Stay with him if he says he wants to commit suicide or you think he may try it. Make sure you do not put yourself at risk if he has a weapon.
  • Do not be afraid to ask if he is thinking of ending his life. Ask if he has a plan for hurting or killing himself.

What warning signs should I watch for?

It is common for an older person to talk about death and dying, especially if he has a worsening medical condition. This makes it difficult to recognize when an older person is planning suicide. The following are warning signs to watch for:

  • Talking about his plan for committing suicide, or suddenly deciding to make a will
  • A change in how he talks about death, such as suddenly talking about it when he never did before, or suddenly not talking about it
  • Saying he sees no reason to live or he knows he will die soon, so he should end his life to prevent pain and suffering
  • A belief that his family will have an easier time when they no longer have to care for him
  • Cutting himself, burning his skin with cigarettes, or driving recklessly
  • Drug or alcohol use, or not taking his prescribed medicine or taking too much
  • Sudden anger, lashing out at others, or seeming hopeless, anxious, or angry and then suddenly becoming happy or peaceful
  • Not wanting to spend time with others or doing things he usually enjoys
  • A change in the way the person eats, sleeps, or dresses
  • Weight gain or loss, less energy than usual, or trouble sleeping or spend a lot of time sleeping
  • Giving away or throwing away his belongings

What increases the risk for suicide?

  • Depression
  • A mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • The death of an important person, or the anniversary of a death
  • Chronic pain or an illness, such as heart disease, cancer, or AIDS
  • Feeling helpless if he has to depend on others to survive, or thinking he is a burden to his family and friends
  • Financial stress, such as not have enough money for bills if he is retired
  • A past suicide attempt, or someone close to him attempted or committed suicide
  • Physical or sexual abuse in the past or present, or being in an abusive relationship
  • Frustration, anger, or feelings of revenge, or a history of violence or aggression toward others
  • Moving out of his home, living alone, or having few friends
  • Divorce or loss of a spouse, or loss of a friendship

How will healthcare providers help the person?

  • Healthcare providers will ask questions about the person's suicide thoughts and plans. They will ask how often he thinks about suicide and if he has tried it before. They will ask if he hurt himself, such as with cutting or reckless driving. They may ask if he has access to weapons or drugs.
  • A healthcare provider will help the person create a safety plan. The plan includes a list of people or groups to contact if the person has suicidal thoughts again. The list may include friends, family members, a spiritual leader, and others he trusts. The person may be asked to make a verbal agreement or sign a contract that he will not try to harm himself.

What medicines may the person need?

Medicine can help the person feel well enough to continue with all of the treatment he needs.

  • Antidepressants help reduce and control symptoms of depression. The person will need to take this medicine as directed. A sudden stop can be harmful, so he must not stop taking the medicine unless directed. It may take 4 to 6 weeks for the medicine to help him feel better.
  • Mood stabilizers help prevent mood swings.
  • Antipsychotics help decrease symptoms of severe agitation and anger.

What kinds of therapy may the person need?

A therapist can help the person talk through his thoughts and feelings. This can help the person identify problems that are making him think about ending his life. The therapist can help find solutions or make changes that will help the person feel more positive about life.

  • Life review therapy focuses on both the successes and failures of the person's life. He can express his feelings and find peace with anything he feels is not resolved.
  • Cognitive bibliotherapy uses written materials or computer programs to help the person change thoughts that make him feel depressed.
  • Problem solving therapy helps the person find the best way to solve problems. It may also help reduce his desire to commit suicide when he is faced with hard times.

What can I do to help the person?

  • Encourage him to seek help for drug or alcohol abuse. Drugs and alcohol can increase suicidal thoughts and make the person more likely to act on them.
  • Help him connect with others. Encourage him to become involved in his community. Some examples are tutoring a young student, volunteering at a local organization, or joining a group exercise program. The person may need help setting up a computer or creating an e-mail account to help him remain connected to others.
  • Exercise with him. Exercise can lift his mood, give him more energy, and make it easier for him to sleep at night.
  • Encourage him to try new things. Older adults who are open to new experiences handle stress and change better than those who are not.
  • Call, visit, or send postcards to him often. Check on him after the loss of a pet, longtime friend, or child. Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries can be difficult for a person after a loss. The loss of a spouse can be especially painful and lonely.
  • Schedule a visit with his religious or spiritual leader. This person may be able to offer additional support and resources to the person.
  • Help the person get equipment that will increase his comfort and mobility. Examples are hearing aids, glasses, large print books, and walkers. These can help him enjoy activities and feel more independent.

Where can I find support and more information?

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
    New York , NY 10004
    Phone: 1- 800 - 273-TALK (8255)
    Web Address:
  • Suicide Awareness Voices of Education
    8120 Penn Ave. S., Ste. 470
    Bloomington , Minnesota 55431
    Phone: 1- 952 - 946-7998
    Web Address:

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • The person has done something on purpose to hurt himself or tries to commit suicide.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • The person tells you he made a plan to commit suicide.
  • The person acts out in anger, is reckless, or is abusing alcohol or drugs.
  • The person has serious thoughts of suicide, even after treatment.

When should I contact the person's healthcare provider?

  • You begin to see warning signs that the person may be considering suicide.
  • The person has intense feelings of sadness, anger, revenge, or despair, or he cannot make decisions easily.
  • The person tells you he has more thoughts of suicide when he is alone.
  • The person withdraws from others.
  • The person stops eating, or begins to smoke or drink heavily.
  • The person feels he is a burden because of a disability or disease.
  • The person has trouble dealing with stress, such as a breakup or a job loss.
  • You have questions or concerns about the person's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2016 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.