About Katti Gray
Katti Gray (@kattigray) is AHCJ’s behavioral and mental health topic leader. Gray, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, is assisting AHCJ members in expanding their mental health coverage as part of ongoing efforts to de-stigmatize mental disease and bring mental health care on level with all other health care.
Suicidal ideation — and suicide itself — has increased as a result of the pandemic’s various stresses, particularly among older Americans, whose risk for suicidal ideation — and suicide itself — is connected to some of the peculiarities of aging.
According to a March 2021 study by Adelphi and Columbia University geriatric researchers, 28 percent of U.S. citizens aged 65 and above, or 14.7 million people, lived alone. From there, the number of older individuals living alone — and often dealing with the gut blows of isolation and loneliness — only grew. Around 44% of women in their seventies and eighties lived alone.
Researchers believe there is a pile-on effect at work when societal and health issues circle in and out of each other. Chronic sickness, which disproportionately affects the elderly, can and does exacerbate social isolation. According to the CDC, 85 percent of people aged 65 and more have at least one chronic condition, with 60 percent having two or more.
According to the most recent CDC data, men 75 and older had the highest risk of suicide, with 39.9 suicides per 100,000 Americans. Women in that age range had a similar rate of 4.3 per 100,000. The rates were 26.4 and 5.9 for those aged 65 to 74, respectively. (The rate for white men 65 and older was 48.7 per 100,000, according to a 2018 study published in Clinical Interventions in Aging.)
Several non-profits and government agencies have launched campaigns to promote awareness, particularly in the wake of COVID-19. Suicide among the elderly — the nation’s fastest-growing age category — was already being recognized as a major public health issue prior to the epidemic, spurred in part by many older people experiencing a loss of control over their money, health, and other aspects of their lives.
The National Council on Aging, which co-hosted the “Understanding Social Isolation and its Impact on Older Adults” webinar in July 2021 and the “Insights and Strategies for Reducing Suicide Among Older Adults” webinar in September 2021, has several upcoming webinars on this topic, including “Mental Health First Aid for Adults,” which is scheduled for Oct. 13.
Observers, researchers, and others have noted that social isolation and loneliness, depression, and other mental health problems, substance use disorders, including addiction to prescribed medicines, disability, and persistent pain and chronic illness all increase the risk of suicide among the elderly.