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Depression, Suicide, and Aging – Not a Love Story

Recently in the Times-Tribune of Scranton, Pennsylvania there was an article by Kathy Wallace, a suicide prevention specialist.  An official from a local hospital, Lehigh Valley, described the murder-suicide of an elderly couple as “a love story.”  Ms. Wallace took them to task and rightly so because, in her words, “this is an injustice to everyone who has lost someone to suicide.  We don’t know the people involved and they may have loved each other very much but it is still wrong to romanticize this terribly sad tragedy

However, we as a society too often romanticize people ending their lives.  Whether it is Romeo and Juliet or the couple from West Side Story, the act is not one of love but rather one of tragedy.  How can we get into the minds of someone who commits suicide?  We don’t know what went into their decision to end their life.  We do know, though, that it is not weak character or a selfish decision that causes suicide but rather a brain that has undergone changes due to depression or other mental illness.  The brain tells these individual who are in a great deal of psychological pain that suicide is the only choice

And so looking at this elderly couple, were they alone in life or did they have a family?  Were they aware of the decision they made or was the decision compromised by an already existing depression in one or the other?  Did they both see this as the only way to stop the pain?

We know that older adults are at higher risk of suicide but it is not always or only because of all the losses older adults face.  Increasing the risk is the inability of others to identify and then give appropriate care to depressed older people.  Thus the rate of suicide in the elderly only increases.

Loss is a given as we age.  There are many small and large losses that cause extreme sadness and grief.  Sleep disturbances, mood swings and other signs of physical and emotional illness might be part of aging but these same signs could be symptoms of depression.  . Older adults can go through sleep disturbances, mood swings, and other signs of physical and emotional aging, but these signs could also be symptoms of depression.

Ms. Wallace urges in her article that “if you see unusual changes or know that family members or friends are going through serious loss, isolating themselves, or stating a perception of themselves as being a burden, please ask them how they are coping. Physicians, please ask your older patients a few simple questions during their visits about how they are doing emotionally. It could stop a tragedy.”

Amen, sister!


4 Responses

  1. Excellent post, with helpful suggestions. Of course you are right, we need to stop romanticizing suicide.

  2. Can you definitively say that it wasn’t a love story? I’m not saying you need to romanticize it, but unless you were the one pulling the trigger; you have no idea one way or the other. If you were in the unenviable position of this couple would you want your absolute last acts to be dismissed so casually? Dementia runs in my wife’s family, as dies longevity. Her mother’s body has lived nearly 10 years longer than her mind has. Neither of us wants to go through that. And we won’t. And yes, it WILL be a love story.

  3. Thanks for your response. I’m sorry that you are facing a difficult future and yes, your decisions regarding dealing with that future might indeed be a love story. In this described situation, though, no one knew the circumstances and for a representative of the hospital to describe it as a love story was not right. As you and I both know, no one knows all the thoughts and feelings and pain and love that go into any life changing decision. We also need to be aware of the fact that outside forces like depression can indeed take these decisions out of our hands. Both Amy and I want people to realize that depression can disrupt rational decisions at any age and too often in the aging we overlook the fact that depression can be just as ruthless a foe as in younger years. Your situation will be in our thoughts.

  4. It’s a thoughtful article and correct in stating that there is nothing “romantic” about suicide. But I disagree with the statement: “…a brain that has undergone changes due to depression or other mental illness. The brain tells these individual who are in a great deal of psychological pain that suicide is the only choice.” While this may be true for some, a disturbing number of people who commit suicide are not clinically depressed or mentally ill, and health care professionals are only beginning to recognize that fact. This is particularly evident in elderly adults who commit suicide. For them, suicide is a desperate declaration of dignity as they face poverty, unemployability, homelessness and unrelenting health problems that doctors all too often dismiss as “the inevitable in growing old.” They believe that it is better to die now, while they still have a home and are able to support themselves, than to suffer poverty and homelessness in a world that is already having great difficulty trying to deal with these issues in the overall population. There are no easy answers. Perhaps a first step would be to separate myth from fact and then face the sad reality of suicide head on.

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