Suicide prevention is “everyone’s business, every day,” according to Jane Woods, chairman of the Suicide Prevention Alliance of Northern Virginia (SPAN). And while it’s easy to agree with the importance of preventing suicide, implementing regional initiatives is challenging, she notes. With support from state and local government agencies and other partners, SPAN launched in 2015 as a regional resource for information, events and activities related to suicide prevention and awareness. Here, Woods, a former state Secretary of Health and Human Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for the Northern Virginia Health Foundation, talks about suicide prevention among older adults and the efforts of a SPAN work group to address this issue.
Q: Generally, when we think about suicide prevention, it’s in connection with young people. Why is suicide prevention such an important issue for older adults?
A: Nationally, older adults are nearly twice as likely as young people to commit suicide—16.4 percent versus 8.7 percent, according to 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the numbers are growing, particularly among those 80 and older. In Virginia, people 70 and over are at highest risk for committing suicide. It is what I call a “quiet crisis,” because no one really wants to talk about it.
Q: Why is this happening?
A: Our demographics are changing. People are living longer, but, as they age, they may become isolated. Their families may live far away, and, as time goes on, their friends either pass away or move into nursing homes or assisted living. If they can’t drive, they may not be able to get out in the community. Public transportation isn’t always available. Loneliness feeds into depression, and, potentially, suicide.
Depression is not a normal part of aging. It can be difficult to recognize and may manifest through difficulty sleeping, fatigue, irritability and confusion. Sometimes medical conditions – and even medications – can contribute to depression. Help is available to older adults and for those who are concerned about them.
Q: What is the solution?
A: As a society, we need to pay more attention to older adults. We need to find ways to reintegrate them into the social fabric of their communities. And we need to reach out to older adults and their families to let them know that they are not alone and that help is available. Keep in mind that this is a generation that overall is not accustomed to talking about mental health or suicide. We must reach out in ways that are culturally appropriate and meaningful to them, tapping into the social networks that they trust, like the places where they worship. Our senior centers throughout northern Virginia are working hard to provide appropriate activities and programs to be inclusive of our diverse senior populations.
Q: How can communities be more supportive of older adults?
A: It really takes thought and intention to make sure that folks don’t become isolated in the community. Can people walk to the grocery store? What services are available to them in the community? What kinds of opportunities are there for community involvement, taking classes, socializing, and so on? You also need to have services for identifying and treating depression, including services available on a sliding-income scale for people who can’t afford to see a private provider. We need to encourage initiatives that promote mental well-being among older adults. Finally, and very importantly, do people know about the resources that are out there for them? In talking to elders and their families, our work group found that most had no idea that SPAN existed. We’re working to change that.
Q: What about community awareness of the problem? How important is that?
A: Community awareness is critical. You want people in the community to be alert to signs if something is wrong. And you want them not to be afraid to ask: Are you thinking of killing yourself? Just last month, in observance of Older Virginians Mental Health Month, we helped organize community forums across Northern Virginia on mental wellness. We have developed materials that we want to make available to clergy members, home aides and others who regularly come into contact with the elderly.
Q: Can you tell us more about what the work group has been doing?
A: We started by gathering as much information as possible and reaching out to groups to stir up interest in the various localities. We did a lot of data mining, taking in everything we could find across a range of organizations, from the area associations on aging to the state agencies to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and other federal agencies. Now we are focusing on outreach, trying to make this issue front and center at the community level, finding groups that are interested and willing to coordinate with us, and developing materials that will address this issue effectively in northern Virginia.
Q: What resources are available to older Virginians in this area?
A: In northern Virginia, we are fortunate to have many resources. We have core service programs like Meals on Wheels and congregate meals; insurance counseling and financial exploitation counseling, so that folks aren’t victimized by scammers; older abuse services; litigation services; transportation; and chore services for people who need help in their homes. Some of these services have limited funding and are available on a sliding-income scale. Generally, people can access these services through their Area Agencies on Aging and their Community Services Boards.
Local Area Agencies on Aging are also a great source of information on all kinds of physical activity, cultural and educational opportunities. Day and overnight trips are available for older Virginians through many of the senior centers.
And you can get mental health and crisis intervention services through the community services boards, through Crisis Link, and through SPAN. Our motto is “Reach Out. Find Hope.” In an immediate or life-threatening situation, call 911. Northern Virginia jurisdiction-specific resources that are available 24/7 can be accessed through the SPAN website.
Q: What is your message to families of older adults?
A: The most important thing that families can do is help the older adults in their lives stay connected and be active. The social piece is critical. The second most important thing is probably fall prevention, making sure that the older person’s house is set up to avoid falls, which so often are the beginning of a downward slide. And then, finally, we want people to know that there is help for depression. If, day after day, you’re feeling it’s not worth getting up in the morning, it’s time to pick up the phone. We want older adults and their families to know that.