A timely question: Are boomers high suicide risks?

With the deaths last week of fashion icon Kate Spade and television icon Anthony Bourdain, there is new focus nationwide on suicide. Both Spade and Bourdain seemed to be living the dream, but there were circumstances in their lives which made that only an illusion. Three years ago, our friends at PBS’s boomer-blog NextAvenue.org published an article about suicide by their senior content editor Emily Gurnon. As a service to readers who might need to seek help for themselves or others, they have just republished it and allowed BoomerCafé to do the same. Because the older we get, if our health turns south and our lives become isolated, we are at higher risk ourselves.

Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman had accomplished much by the age of 77, having revolutionized photography and invented motion-picture film.

George Eastman on the left.

One day, he gathered together a group of friends to discuss how he planned to divide up his estate. After the meeting, he excused himself briefly and wrote them a note: “My work is done. Why wait?”

He then shot himself in the heart.

But before we conclude that Eastman was making a sober, well-considered decision to end his days, Kimberly Van Orden, says, consider this: “If you look a little bit closer at George Eastman’s life, we learn that he suffered severe back pain, functional impairment in terms of mobility, had restricted social interactions and likely experienced depression… Suicide is not an expected response to the challenges of aging.”

Suicide and Older Adults: More Common Than We Think

Van Orden, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, took part in a webinar last month on older-adult suicide prevention.

Many associate suicide with young people, like troubled teens or twentysomethings who never quite got their lives off the ground.

The late Anthony Bourdain. He was of the baby boomer generation.

In fact, it is much more common among older adults. According to new figures just released this week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the highest rate of suicides in America is among people age 45 to 64. There were more than 232,000 suicides in this age group from 1999 to 2016.

Other factors make suicide attempts more likely to be fatal among older people, Van Orden says.

“Older adults tend to die on their first attempt,” she says. Their frailty often makes them less likely to survive; their isolation makes them less likely to be rescued and “they tend to be more planful and determined in their suicidal behavior.”

Kate Spade

Sounding the Alarm

The incidence of older adult suicide has not gone unnoticed by mental health professionals such as Van Orden. Yet they want to raise awareness of the problem among caregivers, family, friends and others who may be able to intervene.

When an older adult has one or more of the following risk factors, his or her loved ones should be especially cognizant of the danger of suicide, Van Orden says:

  • Depression
  • Prior suicide attempts
  • Presence of other medical conditions
  • Physical pain
  • Social dependency or isolation
  • Family discord or loss
  • Inflexible or rigid personality
  • Access to lethal means

One of the most important issues to confront is depression, she said. Health care providers should do routine screenings and, if depression is identified, get it treated.

“We know that depression treatment is effective,” at least in reducing thoughts of suicide and likely in reducing suicide itself, Van Orden says.

Acute Risk – The Most Dangerous Time

Warning signs of “acute risk” of suicide, Van Orden says, include:

  • Threatening to hurt or kill herself or talking of wanting to kill herself
  • Looking for ways to commit suicide by getting access to pills or weapons, for example
  • Talking or writing about death or suicide when such actions are not typical

Toward Prevention

Fortunately, there are some “protective factors” that can reduce the risk of suicide, says Rosalyn Blogier, public health adviser with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Blogier also took part in last month’s webinar, which was sponsored by the National Council on Aging.

The protective factors include:

  • Assessment and care for physical and mental health issues
  • Social connectedness
  • Sense of purpose or meaning
  • Resilience during transitions

Those who work with older adults, including activity directors at senior living centers, have tried to educate residents by offering classes, but the tone of the approach made a difference, says Christine Miara of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, who also joined the webinar. Stigma around mental health issues remains a very real problem.

“They found out that if they called it [the class] ‘Depression Awareness’ or ‘Reducing Suicide,’ they didn’t get many people to come, but when they gave it a title like, ‘Building Resilience’ or ‘Awakening to Joy’ or ‘No Regrets,’ the participation was much better,” she says.

If you or someone you know is in danger of taking their life, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.


  1. Boomer Cafe, thank you for this article. In my mind, this is what being a Boomer means, we research problems, find solutions, innovate, explore, discover, enjoy, create, and more. We open our hearts and mind to others.

    I am still numb from the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Depression is a thief. It robs us of hope, joy and optimism. It steals lives.

  2. This is another strong argument for Counties all over the country to develop themselves into Aging in place Communities before we hit the peak and no longer can address the issues proactively, again we react and suffer the consequences!

  3. Exactly! Not new information, just a bad tendency to ignore reality! As an informed boomer and specialist in midlife psychology, I have been trying to draw attention by writing about and publishing pieces on the ALARMING increase in depression and suicide among Boomers, especially among women going through menopause, since 2008. Here’s my new piece on this old topic: https://adventuresofthenewoldfarts.com/2018/06/10/midlife-suicide-a-growing-trend/

  4. I’m taking my old dog to the vet tomorrow to have him euthanized. I thought he could go another couple of months but after lying down for a while he cannot get up to get himself out to the yard to pee. Makes you focus on your own impending immortality and what will be the norm at that time. More boomer suicides than in previous generations? I’m not surprised. Thanks to the miracles of modern science we live a lot longer and the things that took previous generations out… in the blink of an eye, no longer exist. Carotid scans to insure against stroke, super-ex ray types of scanning machines to make sure our hearts run like Toyotas. Back in the day, you’d hear the story of Uncle John’s death this way… “Well, he got up from the table and went to the refrigerator to get another piece of my chocolate cake and he fell like a sack of cement. Poor dear… he was gone before he hit the floor. Massive heart attack. Today Uncle John can keep going well into his nineties. Anyway, one reason boomers are probably more inclined to take their own lives is because we no longer believe in God. We think we’re in charge. That’s a big change. By the way, my last work in progress was a meditative sort of novel about a boomer after a divorce, contemplating his new state of aloneness and sadness. I thought it was good, but I showed it to another writer, also a boomer, and she said, ‘no one would want to read that.’ She also thought that it would never get past a seventeen year old intern or junior editor at a big NYC publishing house, and she was probably right on about that. Anyway, this opens up a whole can or worms. What else constitutes boomer suicide? Refusing to take your statins, refusing to participate in Canasta at the home? Sitting alone in your room reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past while La Boheme plays through your headphones? (that’s how I’d like to go out). Great article! Some important stuff to think about.

  5. Paul, I am sorry you had to euthanize your dog. Pets are a gift.

    You brought up several interesting points. Yes, medical science has extended our lives which then leads to thinking we want to control our demise.

    Also, I wanted to say, please don’t give up on your novel. Don’t let others tear down your dream. Plenty of “bestsellers” are boring. While it is a good idea to have others read your novel (called beta readers) and get their feedback. Don’t lose sight of the story you want to tell. There are plenty of new authors here, on Boomer Cafe. Find inspiration in their stories. Don’t forget you can self-publish. All aspects of writing a novel are hard work including the publishing, promotion and marketing but it is also an adventure and you meet so many wonderful people.

    1. Ria, thanks for your kind words. No, I haven’t given up on that novel. I have just put it aside for now and I’m working on a collection of short stories and two novelettes. I never give up. I’ve published eight books of fiction and I intend to keep going. No problems there. Ziggy my dog will go to the vet tomorrow (monday) as they are closed today. I intend to take a hiatus from pets for a year or two and travel the country in my truck. Thanks again for your kind words.

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