New program aims to address high rates of elderly suicide .
By Eleanor Campbell
Nearly one in five men who die of suicide in Australia are aged over 60 , with suicide rates for males aged 85 the highest of any age group , meaning the need for targeted and tailored prevention training is growing .
Anglicare ’ s Suicide Prevention for Seniors Program , created in mid-2021 , aims to educate aged care workers about the different risk factors which can lead to suicidal behaviour in older people .
The online workshop is the only known prevention program specifically designed for people in aged care .
“ I think generally when people think about suicide , they don ’ t think about older people ,” said Anglicare ’ s program coordinator Nancy Gewargis .
Currently , people aged over 60 have some of the highest age-specific rates of suicide in the world , according to the World Health Organization .
Studies have shown that older people who live in rural and remote areas , access residential care , or identify as LGBTIQ + or Indigenous are increasingly vulnerable to suicide .
Gewargis said older adults are often far more reluctant to seek mental health support , making early intervention essential .
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“ Older people are less likely to see a mental health professional and they ’ re less likely to talk about suicidal ideation in general .
“ I think one of the main things [ for aged care staff ] to do is to make them feel comfortable , build that trust , and help them to see that other people feel the same way .”
Asking indirect questions such as ‘ do you wish to sleep and never wake up ?’ is a safe way to build rapport with an older person before initiating a direct discussion , Gewargis said .
“ The biggest myth , I think in general is that you shouldn ’ t talk about it or that if you talk about it , you ’ ll plant the idea in someone ’ s mind .
“ That actually prevents people from getting close and talking about it and actually asking the question , ‘ Are you thinking of killing yourself ?’
“ By talking about it , you ’ re relieving some of that emotional burden , and then it opens the door to actually seeking help and getting better .”
Over 180 people in NSW have completed Anglicare ’ s prevention program , which is funded by the state government .
Participants learn about the risks and protective factors of suicide that are specific to seniors , such as loneliness and ageism .
Participants are also encouraged to share their own experiences with elderly suicide .
“ By talking about it , you ’ re relieving some of that emotional burden .
Anglicare employee Yolanda Couchman , who finished the program in January , works in housing for older women at risk of homelessness .
She said two hours after completing her training she was able to assist an elderly resident struggling with her mental health .
“ She displayed signs of a possible suicide attempt , as she had taken herself to an unsafe place and we were able to contact rescue , police and ambulance ,” Couchman said .
“ I shared some of the learnings from the program with a colleague who was able to keep talking with the resident whilst I spoke to the police .
“ After three hours , the resident was able to be made safe and taken to hospital .”
There are hopes to expand Anglicare ’ s program nationally to offer tailored workshops for GPs , geriatricians and pharmacists working with older people .
More information about the Suicide Prevention for Seniors program can be found at www . anglicare . org . au . ■