Joan Seabrook felt “absolute devastation” when she first found out that her 68-year-old mother and 69-year-old father had died by suicide.
“It was a suicide pact,” Seabrook, who lives in London, Ont., said in a recent interview. She still remembers the moment 20 years ago when her sister called to pass on the shocking news about their parents’ deaths from police in Victoria, B.C.
“They weren’t ill, they had no medical issues,” she added. “They lived in British Columbia and everybody else in the family lived in other cities.”
But Seabrook, who was a 41-year-old school principal at the time, says there were probably hints that something wasn’t right which the family didn’t pay attention to.
“When I look back I think there were some signs that my dad was getting disconnected from the joy of life, (like) not doing his gardening which he was always doing,” she said.
Seabrook won’t talk about how her mother and father took their own lives, but says it had been carefully planned in advance.
“They had it well organized and felt that it was something that they were comfortable doing … that it was their choice and that they had lived a good life and they were ready to leave,” she recalled.
Her parents left a note behind, but Seabrook did not want to share its contents, except to say that they mentioned they were very proud of all their family.
“They were very organized in terms of letting us know, very thoughtful, very caring,” she added.
Seabrook, who is currently vice-president of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, has some advice for families of elderly parents: don’t be afraid to ask questions.
“If you have a parent or a loved one — an elderly person that you have concerns about — that you think they might be depressed or have suicidal thoughts, you need to get on it,” she said.
“If it’s an elderly parent, don’t be afraid to ask … they’re not going to fall apart.”
Dr. Marnin Heisel, who studies suicide among older adults, says he’s particularly worried about baby boomers who are now starting to reach 65.
“Compared to their parents’, grandparents’, great-grandparents’ generations, baby boomers on the whole tend to have higher rates of suicide at the same age,” the University of Western Ontario expert noted.
“The 20-year-old baby boomers would have had higher suicide rates than their parents when they were in their 20s — the same in their 30s.”
Heisel, a clinical psychologist, analysed U.S. statistics looking at suicides in the American baby boomer population of more than 77 million between the late 1990s and 2007.
“What I was somewhat surprised to see is that the rate seemed to be increasing — it wasn’t necessarily a huge increase over time — there seemed to be rising, not falling rates of suicide,” he said.
Heisel says there really needs to be a raising of awareness around the whole issue of seniors who take their own lives.
He will likely be keeping a close eye on the aging population in Canada in the coming years to see if there’s any dramatic change in suicide rates.
Charts prepared by the Calgary-based Centre for Suicide Prevention show that male and female suicides in Canada in the 65-74 age group generally fluctuated between 2003 and 2007.
There were 247 suicides in 2003 compared to 217 in 2007.
During the same five-year period, there was a gradual increase in suicides involving Canadians between the ages of 75 and 89.
In 2003, 172 Canadians in that age group died by suicide, while the figure rose to 221 in 2007.
Heisel points out that for the most part, suicide among older adults is not about terminal illness, but has more to do with transitions that can accompany aging.
Ongoing difficulty coping, possible changes in lifestyle and “certainly depression” can lead to suicide by seniors.
Heisel adds that any talk about “wanting to be dead” should be taken seriously.
“Because when older adults do engage in suicidal behaviour, the risk of death is much higher than it is for younger adults,” he said.
Nona Moscovitz, who manages mental health services in a west end area of Montreal where there is a high seniors population, says her challenge is to be able to identify those who are at risk of suicide and get them the help they need.
“We do see a lot of seniors who are presenting what looks like perhaps depression or thoughts of suicide,” Moscovitz said in an interview.
“Depression is not a normal part of aging.”
She has had family members calling her to say they are concerned because their mother has been talking about wanting to die.
“Sometimes a parent will say: ‘I have nothing worthwhile to live for anymore and I would like to die,”‘ Moscovitz said.
She also points to non-verbal signs to watch for, like a parent giving things away, withdrawing or finding no interest in life.
There may also be changes in sleep patterns and appetite patterns.
“With Parkinson’s, you might see some depression (and) we see people who’ve become very depressed when sometimes they are first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”
Moscovitz feels the suicide rate among the elderly may even be under-reported.
“I think perhaps some deaths are documented as accidental when in fact it was maybe more intentional,” she said.
“Either under- or over-medication can be a very silent way of leaving this Earth without being overly dramatic, like shooting oneself or killing oneself by hanging.”
Moscovitz found that some older adults may not want to share any feelings of sadness with family members because they might be encouraged to give up living alone and move to a seniors residence.
“They might suffer quietly without risking having to give up what they feel they want to hold on to,” she said.
“So we have to start having some dialogue when behaviours or actions start to change,” Moscovitz said.
“We can ask questions about what’s going on … why isn’t dad gardening anymore if that was his passion?”
Moscovitz says there’s a gatekeeper program in her community called P.I.E. (prevention-intervention-education) which looks out for vulnerable or isolated older adults.
“We go out and train sentinels, like pharmacists, landlords, superintendents, managers of stores, and bank tellers to look at risks to seniors,” she said.
The community liaisons also include neighbours, acquaintances, postal carriers and bus drivers.
“Then if they see that someone is at risk … they would refer these people to us.”
Experts suggest people seeking help or who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide should visit a doctor or an emergency room — if the risk is high, they should call 911 or local telephone distress lines.