After her father passed away three years ago, Elizabeth Kessler’s 93-year-old mother began to isolate herself. While family members try to visit weekly, her mother’s lack of engagement makes it a struggle to connect.
“You can't make a parent want to interact or do something,” Kessler says. “She resents that I suggest anything; it’s driving a wedge between us.”
According to a 2023 advisory from the Surgeon General, one-in-two adults in America experience loneliness and social isolation, with the highest rates of social isolation found among older adults.
Social isolation harms both mental and physical health. According to the advisory, a lack of social connection increases the risk for premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. National Suicide Prevention Month in September calls attention to the high rates of suicide among older adults.
Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) tell us that suicide rates in 2021 were highest among older adults ages 85 years or older. “It’s important to remember that suicide is complex and there is never one cause,” says Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, senior vice president of research for AFSP.
Older adults face a number of risk factors for suicide, says Flora Vivaldo, executive director, clinical strategic initiatives for Behavioral Health and Mental Well-being at CVS Health®.
Factors may include grief over lost loved ones, loss of independence, chronic illness and pain, cognitive impairment, financial stress, a family history of suicide or mental illness, and depression.
Flora stresses that depression is not a normal part of aging. “Depression gets minimized and dismissed in a dangerous way, even by health care professionals who are less likely to refer older adults for depression intervention or for suicidality,” she says.
That’s why CVS Health aims to reduce suicide attempts among Aetna® members by 2025. “Among adult Commercial members, there has already been a 16% reduction in attempts,” Flora explains.
Other efforts by CVS Health to identify older adults at risk include a depression screening pilot, funding educational programs for primary care practitioners and offering mental health counseling at MinuteClinic® locations in 14 states.
According to Dr. Harkavy-Friedman, older adults are quite open to discussing their mental health, especially as they reflect on their lives. This willingness is part of driving force behind AFSP’s Talk Away the Dark campaign, a new PSA aimed at reducing suicide by encouraging open and direct conversations with family and friends.
“We believe that even one death by suicide is one too many,” Flora says. “There’s more that all of us can do.”
24/7 crisis hotline: If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat live at 988lifeline.org.
More resources are available at https://afsp.org/suicide-prevention-resources/.