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Elderly, single woman not lonely but still suicidal

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Q: I do not like getting old. As a single woman I realize my chances of getting a partner are getting harder and harder. Unlike my female contemporaries who are happy just with their children, grandchildren, pets, hobbies, travel and job, I want romance and sexual intimacy. I have aged well until the last couple of years. And that bothers me a lot.

In fact, I have contemplated suicide but haven’t told my friends. They will think it’s because of depression. It’s not, because I keep myself constantly busy and despite feeling alone, I am not lonely. I just don’t want to grow old with decay, decline and discomfort. I have no family left, so other than my friends who would feel bad for a short while, none would mourn grievously. I have healthy organs which I would like to donate, but my research finds that organs are not accepted from suicide victims.

At least I am not denying I’m aging.

— V.U.

Dear V.U.: You have shared a lot. So first, thank you for your candor and reaching out to be heard.

Let’s talk about your situation. Clearly you are very unhappy at this time. There is no question — particularly if you have contemplated suicide — that this is serious.

Let’s begin with some general information about what we know.

Older adults seem vulnerable. The American Association of Suicidology reports that older Americans are disproportionately more likely to die from suicide as

compared to the rest of the population. Although they make up about 13 percent of the population, they account for almost 16 percent of suicides.

If we take those statistics and apply them to an average day, we get some shocking results. In 2007, there was one suicide by an adult age 65 or older every 97 minutes — almost 15 suicides daily.

And there are some predictable risk factors:

  • The recent death of a loved one.
  • Physical illness and ongoing pain.
  • Believing one’s health is poor.
  • Changing social roles such as retirement.
  • Being socially isolated and lonely.

Note that feeling lonely is a risk factor. Isolation, feeling that no one cares and that few would “miss me,” is painful — to the point where one may believe that life is not worth living, compounded by fears of poor health, physical decline and no intimate partner.The most important thing you can do is to contact a suicide prevention hotline.

Here are two sources:

  • National Suicide Prevention Life Line: 800-273-8255
  • In Los Angeles, the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center: 877-727-4747.

I urge anyone considering suicide to contact one or both. They are available 24 hours a day.

You will be heard, understood and get a sense of what you can do to feel better.

Some think that having dark thoughts is just part of aging. It is not.

Feeling sad, grieving and having temporary “blue moods” are normal according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Persistent feelings that interfere with how we function are not.

Unfortunately, these ongoing blue periods that I will call depression are often underdiagnosed. Health professionals can mistakenly think that persistent depression is an “OK” response to serious illnesses and social and financial hardships that can occur with age. Even some older adults believe this.

The good news is that we know late-life treatments can help.

The National Institute of Mental Health provides a checklist that can help you — or anyone else — determine if you are just having a bad day or are suffering from a serious depression.

Ask yourself: Am I feeling nervous, empty, worthless, restless, irritable, unloved, finding nothing enjoyable and that life is not worth living? Or am I sleeping more or less than usual and eating more or less than usual? The NIMH says these may be symptoms of depression.

The NIMH also mentions other symptoms that may indicate depression or a treatable illness: being very tired and sluggish, frequent stomach aches and chronic pain.

One last point: We cannot underestimate the importance of relationships in later life. Jane E. Brody, in a recent column in the The New York Times, wrote about a study by S. Leonard Syme of UC Berkeley. Syme found that those who had close social ties and an unhealthy lifestyle lived longer than those with poor social connections who lived a healthy lifestyle.

Feeling socially isolated can be devastating.

V.U., you have been very brave in sharing your thoughts.

Editor’s note: Upon receiving V.U.’s email, Helen Dennis contacted the reader and recommended she call Suicide Prevention immediately.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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