By Keri Lipperini, Director of the Office of Nutrition and Health Promotion Programs
Each year, thousands of lives are lost to suicide across the U.S. And although suicide can affect people of any age, older adults are particularly at risk. Serious illness, chronic pain, mental health conditions such as depression, and social isolation all increase risk of suicide, and all of these conditions are more prevalent among older adults.
In 2019, over 9,000 adults age 65+ died by suicide, and suicide rates were highest among those 85+ compared to other age groups. And for every older adult who dies by suicide, many more have considered or attempted suicide.
As a former Navy hospital corpsman who has worked many years with veterans of all ages, and someone who has worked in the aging network for more than 20 years, I have witnessed this first hand. I have seen seniors stop eating due to depression, listened to the people in tears from the chronic pain they experience, and walked side-by-side with veterans who battled suicidal thoughts every day.
I’ve also seen first-hand the impact of the aging network, and passion and dedication you bring to helping people stay healthy and engaged as they age. I’m proud to say that I have seen the same passion and dedication since I joined ACL in 2017. And together, we are making an amazing difference.
For example, our programs address the health factors that increase the risk of suicide:
- This National Council on Aging article highlights PEARLS, Healthy IDEAS, and BRITE — three evidence-based programs that ACL grantees are offering to tackle depression and substance abuse among older adults.
- ACL’s Chronic Disease Self-Management Education (CDSME) Programs educate and give tools to older adults and disabled people to help them better manage chronic conditions such as depression, chronic pain and opioid use.
And we also are working together to address the social factors that can increase the risk of suicide.
One of the greatest protective measures in preventing suicide is building strong and meaningful connections with others. Connection creates a sense of belonging – or the feeling of being a valued member of your community – which is essential to our health and well-being. It also creates a safety net to fall back on during difficult times.
ACL and our partners in the aging and disability networks have long understood the importance of connection, and we have developed programs and services to help prevent isolation. For example, with funding from ACL, the engAGED National Resource Center is working with the aging network to expand capacity to offer social engagement to older adults, people with disabilities, and caregivers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, these efforts became more important than ever, as public health measures led to unprecedented isolation – especially for those at highest risk, including older adults and people with disabilities.
Our networks met this challenge head on with innovative interventions that not only addressed basic needs, like nutrition, but also fostered belonging and connection. For example, ACL-funded research teams at Georgia State University and Virginia Tech collaborated to develop a program to reduce social isolation and suicide risk among older adults who participating in the home-delivered meals program. (You can read more about that program in our guest blog from earlier this month.)
ACL’s Commit to Connect initiative pulled together partners from across federal government, the aging and disability networks, philanthropy, and industry to create this campaign to combat social isolation and loneliness during COVID-19 and beyond.
As vaccination rates increase, we can look forward to reopening our doors and creating opportunities for older adults to connect in person. But we also will continue to build upon the successful strategies developed over the last year and a half, reaching more people, more effectively than ever before.
Suicide is preventable, and our programs – and the aging network – play a key role in reducing the risk of suicide for the people we serve.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, talk to someone now. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 via chat or phone: 800-273-8255
Explore more resources for staying connected…
- AARP Foundation Connect2Affect
- CDC Suicide Prevention Resources
- National Coalition on Mental Health and Aging
- NCOA Older Adult Mental Health Awareness Day Symposium Resources
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) Older Adult Resources
- SPRC: People with Physical Health Problems or Disabilities
- NIA Social Isolation and Loneliness Outreach Toolkit
- SAMHSA Promoting Emotional Health and Preventing Suicide Toolkit Senior Centers