NEW YORK -- The picture painted of the so-called Golde Years by TV commercials and such magazines as Modern Maturity is one of idyllic relaxation on golf greens and shuffleboard courts or in exotic ports of call where every day is a long Elysian dream.
But there is trouble in this paradise. According to a new Gallup Organization poll released yesterday, Americans over the age of 60, often depressed by feelings of worthlessness in a youth-oriented society and fearing a future of lost control over their lives, are killing themselves in record numbers.
And, as aging baby boomers join the senior citizen ranks, the body count is expected to climb.
The poll, which George Gallup Jr. called the most exhaustive attitudinal survey ever taken of the nation's elderly, was announced at a symposium titled, "Too Young to Die -- At Any Age."
Conducted in November among 802 Americans over the age of 60, the survey indicates that 6 percent, or a statistical projection of 600,000, have considered suicide, and that senior citizens, who make up 26 percent of the U.S. population, actually commit 39 percent of its suicides.
Mr. Gallup said that because both suicide and psychiatric care ++ remain taboo topics among the elderly, and because the 5 percent of the nation's senior citizens who are in rest homes were not polled in the current survey, the actual statistical number of those considering taking their own lives "probably is closer to 1 million."
"We must add to this million tormented souls the anguish of millions more in their families," Mr. Gallup said. "We are wasting a great national resource."
He said that while the vast majority of Americans, age 60 and over, are "upbeat, positive and independent," growing numbers are in deep depression, contemplating suicide and doing next to nothing to seek psychiatric help.
Last year, a Gallup survey of suicide among teen-agers provoked widespread alarm, but this new poll indicates it is the senior citizens who are more at risk.
Mr. Gallup found that while 33 percent of teen-agers had considered suicide, only 1 in 200 attempts actually were completed. For seniors, the completion ratio is 1 in 4. In 1989, the actual elderly suicide rate per 100,000 population was 20.1, 65 percent higher than for the nation in general, which is 12.8 per 100,000. Among those aged 5-24, it was 14.0, or 31 percent.
Mr. Gallup said that among people over 50, the highest rate of suicides occurs among single, white males, living alone in Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Wyoming. The rate in those states is as much as three times higher than that in the mid-Atlantic states, which have the lowest rate. No reason for the geographic disparity was determined, but the lowest rate, in general, of suicide contemplation is found among the deeply religious.
Gallup demographic research indicated that a sharp increase in population coincides with a higher suicide rate for the population segment impacted. There are now 52 million people over the age of 55, a figure expected to top 55 million by 2000 and swell to 73 million by 2020.
Of elderly people who reported suicidal thoughts in the survey, one-third cited loneliness as the motive, and 10 percent gave financial problems, bad health and depression as reasons. But fear -- of placement in nursing homes and of being hooked up to life-support systems, apparently also has a major bearing.