Is It Normal for Older Adults to Think about Death?
In honor of Older Americans Month, I've made it my mission to provide some helpful information about staying well in our later years as well as to dispel some stereotypes about older people.
Have you ever made assumptions about older people's thoughts and feelings? I'm sure we all have. For instance, many people associate the word "curmudgeonly" (grumpy, stubborn) with older people, especially older men. Sure, we can all think of someone we know who is older and curmudgeonly. But is every older person we know this way? Nope.
Another assumption is that all older people develop Alzheimer's disease or another kind of dementia if they live long enough. This couldn't be further from the truth! But that's a topic for another blog post. The assumption I want to talk about today has to do with whether older people think incessantly about death.
I can think of several occasions when someone has said, "They're old! They're probably thinking about when the Lord will take them and hoping it's sooner rather than later. That's normal."
Hmmm. Really? It's normal for older people to wish to die? Let's see about that. In a study recently published in The Gerontologist, researchers conducted in-home interviews with 377 older people (60 years of age and older) who were clients of an aging care services agency. Several measures were administered that assessed passive suicidal ideation (thinking about death without a clear plan to harm oneself), active suicidal ideation (actively thinking about killing oneself), depression, and anxiety.
Analysis of the results revealed four categories of clients: (a) a group with mild distress (depression and/or anxiety) and no passive or active suicidal ideation, (b) a group with high distress and no passive or active suicidal ideation, (c) a group with mild distress and both passive and active suicidal ideation, and (d) a group with high distress and both passive and active suicidal ideation.
Do you notice anything interesting here? None of the older adults showed only passive suicidal ideation. Any participants who showed passive ideation also showed active suicidal ideation. Otherwise, they showed no ideation at all. In fact, the authors summarize that passive ideation, or "the desire for death and the belief that life is not worth living do not appear to be normative in later life."
There are two take-aways from this study. First, we shouldn't assume that older people naturally think about death and dying. Second, if we know an older person who does show even passive suicidal ideation, we should take this seriously because there's a good chance that active ideation may be there too. If you suspect that an older person you know is suicidal, read MentalHelp.net's article, Helping a Family Member or Friend Who is Suicidal, for information about how to proceed.
Van Orden, K. A., O'Riley, A. A., Simning, A., Podgorski, C., Richardson, T. M., & Conwell, Y. (2014). Passive suicide ideation: An indicator of risk among older adults seeking aging services? The Gerontologist, Advance Access. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnu026