Dear Abby: Suicide rate among older men is overlooked tragedy

DEAR ABBY: My elderly father’s dearest friend committed suicide yesterday. He shot himself in the head. The family wasn’t even aware that he was depressed. Dad has lost three wonderful friends this way in recent years. He’s heartbroken thinking that his buddies were secretly suffering.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the rate of suicide for men 70 and older in the U.S. is more than double the overall suicide rate. Yet, with all of our suicide prevention efforts, this high-risk group seems to be ignored.

How can we help prevent these tragedies? What are the signs of depression in older men? And what can families do if they suspect depression in “Dad,” “Gramps” or “Uncle John”? – VAN IN MASSACHUSETTS

DEAR VAN: Please convey to your father how sorry I am for his loss. I think the first thing people have to remember is that men in general do not manifest depression the way women do because women are more open about sharing their feelings. Men, particularly older men, were not raised to do that because they were taught that expressing emotion was “weak,” so they stay silent.

A common mistake people make is thinking these things are happening because a person is old. If you observe a change in someone’s behavior, it is all right to ask the person what’s going on. Keep in mind that people who feel connected are less likely to harm themselves. Isolation is the enemy. Visit them, or take them out so they won’t feel alone.

It’s also important to help seniors meet others they can relate to, particularly if their friends are dying off. A senior center can provide a place to socialize and meet new people. Exercise is important, too, and many senior centers provide exercise facilities.

Equally important is volunteering. Older men are valuable assets to the community and should be encouraged to regard themselves that way. They have a lifetime of experience to offer, which should not be wasted. By helping these men get and stay connected, you could actually be saving a life.

As people age, they often have physical problems that are associated with depression. If you need advice about how to approach someone about your worries, an excellent resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.