Abe Hajjar watched as the bodies of his best friends were carried from their home, an elderly couple who couldn’t cope any longer.
On a cold December day in 2012, Ed and Magda Amler were found dead in their London home from gunshot wounds. The murder-suicide was the final act of a desperate couple. They were both 88 years old and didn’t have any children. Magda Amler’s health was failing. “They were left alone,” Hajjar said. “A lot more could have been done, there should be more done to directly look after senior citizens.”
The deaths were a blow to Hajjar, a 68-year-old retired realtor who was friends with the couple for decades.
“I’m still trying to forget, still trying to cope with it. It’s not easy.”Though society focuses on physical health issues for seniors, more emotional and psychological support is needed, Hajjar believes. Social engagement and even friendships often are lacking among seniors, resulting in depression and suicide, he said. “There was no one to take care of them; they only had each other,” Hajjar said of the Amlers. Their deaths were a shock to friends who said they didn’t see any signs before the murder-suicide. But statistics show the elderly are most at risk of committing suicide.
The Canadian Mental Health Association said in a 2012 report that those aged 65 and older, especially men, have a higher suicide rate than other generations. Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1965, have a higher suicide rate than previous generations, the report said. Paul Links, chief of psychiatry at the Schulich School of Medicine at Western University, has seen the increase in depression among seniors firsthand, in his practice. Although Statistics Canada figures from 2009 point to the 40 to 60 age demographic as higher risk for suicide, once figures are taken across North America, and for other years, that total rises for seniors.
“It is a fairly consistent concern that men over 65 have higher suicide rates,” Links said. “More seniors are living alone and isolated and obviously living longer with declining health, and these are related to the risk of suicide.” He points to lack of “connectiveness” or loneliness, as one reason. A study in Italy showed suicide rates for seniors dropped simply by having volunteers make regular phone calls to the elderly. Links sees community care as an opportunity to offer personal contact to seniors to cut these rates. “We have to build on connectiveness, and have frontline people identify seniors at risk.”
Sandra Coleman is director of the Community Care Access Centre in London that delivers services to 60,000 in the area, 60% of whom are older than 65. She believes changes in the family structure — with fewer seniors living with, or cared for by their children — are a factor as is the rising tide of dementia and Alzheimer’s. “It doesn’t surprise me that rates (for seniors) are higher than they have been historically and are increasing,” she said. “Whereas 10 to 20 years ago children and family lived in the same community, there was a natural support system, but now we have more seniors living on their own in isolation and we don’t have the same network of family, friends and neighbours that would have been the case historically,” Coleman said.
“The loss of connections in the community can very much increase the impact of dementia on loneliness and anxiety that can lead to problems.” Haijar would like to see an “army” of volunteers visiting seniors several times a week, engaging them to stave off depression. “I’m worried and afraid other people can be encouraged to do the same thing if they have psychological and social problems,” he said. “Bring them a cake, a flower, have a coffee; it will rejuvenate their lives. If a person wants to take their own life, there is nothing that can stop that, but we can avert this tragedy. This is not acceptable in a civilized society.”
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- 3,890 Canadians committed suicide in 2009
- 18 of every 100,000 men and 5.3 of every 100,000 women complete suicide
Source: Statistics Canada
In the U.S.
- Elderly made up 12.5% of the population in 2007, but accounted for almost 15.7% of suicides
- 5,421 people aged 65 and older committed suicide in 2007, a rate of one every 97 minutes.
Source: American Association of Suicidology
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- People 65 and older have the highest suicide rate of any age group.
- Baby Boomers have higher suicide rates than previous generations.
- Men 65 and older have the highest suicide rate in Canada.
- Adults 65 and older who commit suicide have made two to four previous attempts.
- Older adults tend to use lethal means (firearms) when attempting suicide.
- Older adults talk less about suicide than other groups and, because they often live alone, have less chance of survival after attempts.
- When older people die, the cause of death (including suicide) may be less rigorously investigated than in younger people.
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- In Canada, Baby Boomers, the post-war generation born between 1947 and ’65, began turning 65 in 2012.
- More than 8.2 million babies were born during that time.
- By 2032, Canada’s population of seniors aged 65 or older will double.
Here’s how it breaks down:
- In 1971, 8% of Canadians were 65 or older.
- Roughly 14% currently fall into that category.
- By 2036, the percentage of elderly will increase to 25%.
- By 2036, some 10 million Canadians will be seniors with a growing need for health and social programs.
- By 2061, all but a handful of the Baby Boomers will have passed away, but the number of elderly will still range from 12 million to 15 million Canadians.
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- Threatening to hurt or kill him/herself, or talking of wanting to hurt or kill him/herself
- Looking for ways to kill him/herself by seeking access to firearms, pills or other means
- Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide, when these actions are out of the ordinary
- Experience of a suicide loss
- Living alone or social isolation
- Physical handicaps
- Mental illness
- Negative life events and transitions
- Loss (health, relationships, independence)
What to do:
- Get help, call a local suicide prevention hotline or health-care provider.
By Norman DeBono, The London Free Press
Sunday, June 16, 2013 9:49:49 EDT PM