How to Reach Out – Older Adults (Seniors)
A popular misconception is that the highest suicide rate is among youth when actually people 65 and older have the highest suicide rate of any other group. In Canada, depression is one of the most common mental health problems in older adults. As many as 1 out of 5 older adults show signs of depression, with depression in men more likely to lead to self-harm. Baby Boomers have higher suicide rates than any previous generation entering the 65 and over age range. Many live alone and might not have many friends and/or family; so it’s important that you look for any potential signs and be aware of any change in behaviour.
Older adults tend to talk less about mental illness and suicide. They often experience depression differently and might not display warning signs.
How can you tell if a senior in your life might be struggling with their mental health?
It’s very important to be alert to changes in the older adult. The following are some potential signs to watch for, but be aware that they can also be linked to other medical conditions, so seeking medical attention is crucial:
- Change in behaviours or regular activities
- Withdrawal from others
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping far too much
- Lower energy and motivation
- Frequent outbursts of anger or rage or mood changes
- Avoiding family and/or friends
- Signs of self-injury
- Use of alcohol and/or drugs
- Overuse of prescribed medication
- Change in personality
- Acting strange, out of the ordinary
- Constant worry or sadness
- Negative self-talk or hopelessness
- Change in physical health and/or hygiene
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Negative ideation (e.g. thinking and talking about death)
- Has experienced a recent loss
What can you do if you notice a change in a senior’s behaviour?
If you’ve noticed warning signs, it’s important to talk with the senior about what specific changes you have noticed. Try to remain caring, open and supportive.
If you feel that the senior is in danger of committing suicide, call 9-1-1.
Prepare yourself to discuss your concerns with the senior
- Write down what you want to say.
- Think about what you would do and prepare yourself if the person has a negative reaction.
- Find out about mental health resources in your community.
- Talk to others who are in contact with the older person more regularly to see if they have noticed similar changes and behaviours.
- Talk to other people who may have dealt with similar situations.
- Choose an appropriate time and place to have the conversation.
Talk about it
Here are a few things to keep in mind during the conversation:
- Talk about the changes you have noticed. Keep it short and give the older adult the opportunity to think about what was said. Make sure you set a time to talk more about it later on. But if you feel the person might do something drastic, do not leave them alone.
- Provide support. The older adult needs to feel your genuine support.
- Keep calm. Don’t take things personally. The older adult may do or say things out of anger or disbelief. Help that person find someone they might be more comfortable talking with if they don’t feel at ease talking to you. They may also be open to speaking with a counsellor or their doctor.
- Be open-minded and non-judgmental. Replace “You have everything”, “Look at all the people who love you”, “What more do you want?” with “I am here for you”, “No matter what you are going through, I can help you”, “I love you/care about you”.
- Leave the door open for further conversation. No matter what time of day, it’s important to be there for the older person. It often takes great courage for them to open up about their issues.
- Don’t give up. Don’t accept the answer that “nothing is wrong” if instinct is telling you otherwise. Be persistent but in a loving way.
Connect them with help. Offer to accompany them if possible.
Take care of yourself. Helping out a depressed or suicidal person can be very stressful. Make sure you get some support for yourself, whether it be friends and family, health care providers, etc.