Home | Clinical Practice | New program aims to address high rates of elderly suicide

New program aims to address high rates of elderly suicide

Nearly one in five men who die of suicide in Australia are aged over 60, with suicide rates for males aged 85 the highest of any age group, meaning the need for targeted and tailored prevention training is growing.  

Anglicare’s Suicide Prevention for Seniors Program, created in mid-2021, aims to educate aged care workers about the different risk factors which can lead to suicidal behaviour in older people. 

The online workshop is only known prevention programs specifically designed for people in aged care.

“I think generally when people think about suicide, they don't think about older people,” said Anglicare's program coordinator Nancy Gewargis.

Currently, people aged over 60 have some of the highest age-specific rates of suicide in the world, according to the World Health Organization.

Studies have shown that older people who live in rural and remote areas, access residential care, or identify as LGBTIQ+ or Indigenous are increasingly vulnerable to suicide.

Gewargis said older adults are often far more reluctant to seek mental health support, making early intervention essential.

“Older people are less likely to see a mental health professional and they’re less likely to talk about suicidal ideation in general.

“I think one of the main things [for aged care staff] to do is to make them feel comfortable, build that trust, and help them to see that other people feel the same way.”

Asking indirect questions such as ‘do you wish to sleep and never wake up?’ is a safe way to build rapport with an older person before initiating a direct discussion, Gewargis said. 

"The biggest myth, I think in general is that you shouldn't talk about it or that if you talk about it, you'll
plant the idea in someone's mind.

"That actually prevents people from getting close and talking about it and actually asking the question, 'Are you thinking of killing yourself?'

“By talking about it, you're actually relieving some of that emotional burden, and then it opens the door to actually seeking help and getting better.” 

Over 180 people in NSW have completed Anglicare’s prevention program, which is funded by the state government.

Participants learn about the risks and protective factors of suicide that are specific to seniors, such as loneliness and ageism. 

Participants are also encouraged to share their own experiences with elderly suicide.

Anglicare employee Yolanda Couchman, who finished the program in January, works in housing for older women at risk of homelessness.

She said two hours after completing her training she was able to assist an elderly resident struggling with her mental health. 

“She displayed signs of a possible suicide attempt, as she had taken herself to an unsafe place and we were able to contact rescue, police and ambulance,” Couchman said. 

“I shared some of the learnings from the program with a colleague who was able to keep talking with the resident whilst I spoke to the police.

“After three hours, the resident was able to be made safe and taken to hospital.”

There are hopes to expand Anglicare's program nationally to offer tailored workshops for GPs, geriatricians and pharmacists working with older people.

To find out more about the Suicide Prevention for Seniors program click here.

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One comment

  1. The extraordinarily high rate of elderly suicide shocked me, but it should not have. Suicide in the elderly is clearly a ‘taboo’ subject for most. I had never even seen the subject reported on, nor heard of it being discussed, prior to this article. Just another indignity, another cross to rest on the frail shoulders of the precious aging and invisible population. I spent close to 4 years witnessing each of my parents – living in different Aged Care Facilities, lose their sparkle. And until Covid took its cruel hold and visits became few and far between, I saw the same decline in all residents. In retrospect, I could probably name those wishing to take their own life. For those in high care dementia as my Dad was, some possibly thought they were already dead and had landed in hell! I will pray that Anglicare’s Suicide Prevention for Seniors Program will grow dramatically and in acceptance. And that it be used as a base model for mandatory training for all Aged Care Workers including management; sooner rather than later. Thank you.

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