Tips for identifying and assisting elders at-risk for suicide was the focus of a recent clinical training at Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services (SCES).
The discussion was led by Rose Cheyette from Samaritans of Boston, a not-for-profit that provides suicide prevention services. Speaking to roughly 40 SCES case managers, social workers, and nurses, Cheyette described suicide as a complicated issue that impacts many older adults, noting the highest suicide rate in 2016 was among people aged 45-64– with people over age 85 a close second. She also described listening as a powerful prevention tool.
“The core of this training is how lifesaving true active listening can be,” said Cheyette. “Anyone can prevent suicide, so long as you compassionate, empathetic, and you know who to turn to, if a crisis situation does take place.”
Cheyette said there are warning signs for 75% of suicides, listing several that are common with older adults:
• direct verbal statements (I’m tired of being a burden, I don’t want to wake up tomorrow)
• change in sleeping or eating habits
• taking risks, such as ignoring medical instructions
• loss of interest in hobbies or favorite activities
• giving away prized possessions
• putting affairs in order.
While there are many potential warning signs, Cheyette the only way to know if somebody is feeling suicidal is to discuss the concerns. She advised a sincere and compassionate approach, with a focus on listening and validating instead of trying to problem-solve. She added suicide is typically about wanting pain to end, more than anything else.
“We have a lot of people who reach out to us, and I believe they’re serious about suicide, but they’re scared and don’t want to be alone in that situation,” said Cheyette. “They might want help, but they might need somebody to meet them halfway.”
Cheyette said suicide generally stems from a combination of risk factors, which cumulatively can becoming overwhelming. She listed the following common risk factors for older adults:
• significant loss (loved one, home, driver’s license, independence)
• lack of social supports
• financial changes
• abuse or neglect
• untreated depression
SCES provides clinical training at least once per month to help prepare staff for potentially challenging situations, explained SCES Clinical Director Annie Fowler.
“It’s difficult to think, learn and talk about suicide, but it’s something we have to face at times in our work,” said Fowler. “I want our staff to feel like they have the skills to identify when someone might be having suicidal thoughts, feel comfortable talking with an individual about suicide, and knowing what to do with the information they receive.”
Established in 1974, Samaritans of Boston provides community education about suicide and also provides a 24-hour helpline, which receives roughly 80,000 calls annually. In addition to helping people in crisis, the helpline also receives many calls from people who are feeling depressed or isolated, explained Cheyette.
“A lot of what we do is listening,” said Cheyette. “We know we’re not going to solve people’s problems in a 20-minute phone conversation, but we hope they can find some hope within themselves to keep going.”
Samaritans also provides grief support services. For more information, visit samaritanshope.org or call their helpline at (877) 870-4673.
Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services (SCES) is a non-profit agency that supports the independence and well-being of older people in Somerville and Cambridge. For more information, visit eldercare.org, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or contact the SCES Aging Information Center at 617-628-2601 for free advice and guidance.