Troubled Golden Years

December 18, 1992

Suicide has sometimes been regarded as a "victimless

crime," but anyone who has counseled those left behind knows that is not the case. Suicides among any group can have devastating effects on families and friends. So a new Gallup poll finding that Americans over 60 are committing suicide in record numbers -- and that many more have thought about it -- should catch the attention of health professionals.

Senior citizens make up 26 percent of the country's population, but account for 39 percent of its suicides. The Gallup survey found that 6 percent of its respondents admitted they had thought about suicide -- a figure that would translate to about 600,000 throughout the population. But the survey did not include the 5 percent of the elderly who live in nursing homes, and many other older people may be reluctant to discuss such topics. For those reasons, the actual number is thought to be much greater, perhaps as high as 1 million.

Of survey respondents who admitted having suicidal thoughts, one-third cited loneliness as a major reason. The human need for connections with other people may help to account for the fact that for people over 50 the highest rate of suicide occurs among single white men living alone in Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Wyoming -- all relatively sparsely populated parts of the country. Financial problems were cited by another 10 percent as a reason for contemplating suicide, but another major factor was fear -- fear of being placed in a nursing home, fear of losing self-sufficiency and fear, too, of the possibility of being kept alive by mechanical means.

A Gallup poll last year raised concern about the prevalence of suicide among teen-agers, but the new survey suggests the problem is even more acute among the elderly. And because sharp rises in population groups tend to result in higher suicide rates, the phenomenon is likely to get worse as baby boomers age, swelling the ranks of Americans 55 and older from 52 million today to 73 million by the year 2020.

The later years of life are sometimes referred to as a "golden age" and, thanks to Social Security, Medicare and other government programs, older Americans are better off than at any time in the country's history. Yet as the Gallup survey shows, life is never without problems. Age may bring its benefits, but the gold is not unalloyed.

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