The suicide rate in older women: a real women’s health issue

What’s going on behind suicide rates amongst older women?

The suicide rate in older women: a real women’s health issue

Women’s health matters cover a broad range of areas and are widely marketed in multiple ways from vitamins and beauty products to medical procedures and research and much else in between, but one particular subject that receives very little attention is that of older women (60+ years in the Western world) and suicide.

The suicide rate is increasingly being spoken about these days in the media, and by researchers, politicians, health professionals and support services and organisations, but it’s rarely considered to be an older women’s health issue. It’s a topic that flies under the radar and is largely invisible and in being pushed to the background, the conversations which can help to bring a deeper understanding of why suicide may be considered an option in old age simply aren’t taking place.

We live in a society where ageing is usually looked upon as something to dread, especially if you are a woman. After all, as an older woman your reproductive years are behind you; you are most likely no longer in paid employment and therefore can be seen as a burden on family, the community and the public purse; you are perhaps expected to take care of others, e.g. partner or grandchildren without regard to your own health and wellbeing; your health problems have usually increased, while agility and mobility have diminished. The aging process also inevitably means there are more wrinkles and sagging skin than ever before and ‘sexy’ is definitely considered to be beyond the scope of possibilities for older women. In fact, we are constantly bombarded with the message that we need to try and preserve a youthful appearance at all costs if we want to be treated with any measure of respect by others. All these types of beliefs and ideals are imposed on women by the external world, yet do nothing to build or support a woman’s sense of self-worth and instead, set them up to feel disillusioned and somehow deficient in one way or another. Women struggle throughout their lives to achieve a balance between their inner and outer worlds, only to find they reach old age feeling worthless, unwanted and subsequently, sometimes contemplating suicide.

Ageing and Women: Women need to realise that there are
different stages of beauty, each building more beauty from within.
Ageing is nature’s way of providing this glorious process.

Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume II, ed 1, p 363

It’s true that suicide attempts are more common amongst the younger age groups, but the reality is that the actual suicide rate by older people is much higher than that of their younger counterparts[1, 2]. There are multiple factors that contribute to older people being at risk of suicide such as:

  • ‘Mental and neurocognitive disorders
  • Social isolation
  • Feelings of disconnectedness and loss of relatives
  • Neurocognitive impairment and altered decision making
  • Chronic physical illness
  • Physical and psychological pain’[2].

While all the above factors are significant, it is particularly the psychological and social impacts of ageing on women that are explored here in more detail. At one stage of my professional career as a counsellor, I was working with older people who lived with chronic health conditions – which, by the way, is a growing issue worldwide as people are living longer, but often with multiple chronic health issues and subsequently a poor quality of life. What struck me when talking with older women was the way quite a number of them spoke about feeling a sense of uselessness in life; of having nothing to look forward to and feeling like a burden on others. They had often spent their lives caring for children who were now independent adults, and they had usually outlived their partners or had been single for quite a period of time, which added to the sense of isolation. This pervasive sense of feeling socially isolated and invisible, and like they were on the margins of society with nothing of value to offer, was often interlinked with thoughts of suicide.

Of course, not all older women struggle with all that comes with ageing, and in fact there are those who embrace this time of their lives with a robust joy. Yet the sense of having little to live for was far more common than I had realised until I was actually working in and amongst this population and discovered the existence of the dark undercurrent of suicide. It’s a problem that is there in plain sight for anyone who cares to look, but even amongst health professionals I found the focus was usually on the physical health side of things and the psychosocial aspects were pushed to the side or only dealt with in a very surface level kind of way. While depression was frequently accepted as being present, the subject of suicide didn’t seem to rate much of a mention unless a person made it too obvious to ignore. Yet, it is a real women’s health issue and I sensed it was a relief for these women to be able to openly talk to someone about how they were feeling, despite all the stigma and shame existing around mental illness.

But at what point does the momentum for suicide commence – is it only when women are caught in the aging bind or is there something else that happens long before that point? If so, what would help to avoid this pitfall and actually improve a woman’s quality of life as she ages, especially when, truth be told, older women potentially have so much to offer the world?

As we spoke, women would reveal more of their lives, and it was like they had been longing for the opportunity to present itself to tell their stories so they could start to make sense of their experiences across the lifespan. With the benefit of hindsight, what was also apparent at such times was that there had been a series of choices made over the course of the woman’s life that, while seemingly appropriate at the time, were actually slowly but surely leading to this end point.

Women would talk about how their life had unfolded over the years and while there were highlights, it also wasn’t unusual to hear about experiences of abuse and violence throughout their lives, intimate relationship ruptures and complete breakdowns, poverty/financial hardship, drug and alcohol abuse, and intergenerational disagreements and discord. However, a stand-out area was each woman’s poor sense of self-identity and self-worth.

We enter adult life already carrying thousands of imprints that are made up of various expectations, demands and ingrained beliefs around how we should act and think, with our particular model of life shaped by religion, culture, and political, financial and legal systems, along with the social world. In the process we spend our time and energy trying to fit the pictures we have absorbed along the way, such as finding a partner, marrying and having children. In doing so, anything relating to the building of a foundation of genuine self-love is usually dismissed and overridden.

Many women I met, for example, had been strongly attached to their role as a mother and homemaker. Even today, motherhood is still seen as an achievement and life is then designed around child-caring and rearing. The expectation is that as the woman ages, her children will reciprocate the love, care and sacrifices she made for them, and while this may happen, my experience working with older women showed me that quite often this was not the case.

We only need to look at the shocking rise in elder abuse around the world to tear apart the myth that being part of a blood family means that everyone is automatically lovingly supportive of each other.

Many times I heard stories where children were grown and lived independently, but that contact had ceased, or only occurred if something out of the ordinary had happened, or if the children wanted something from their mother, such as money. Women expressed a sense of grief, regret and sadness that their picture of having the ‘ideal family’ that they had dreamed about years before was exposed as a sham, and they were now feeling lonely, unloved, and lost. As a means of escaping their hurt and disillusionment, women would speak about wanting to die, and while some were prepared to wait until they passed away naturally, there were others who definitely felt that suicide was the best ‘solution’.

A starting point is to ask ourselves what would happen if women were supported from birth to have a deeper sense of knowing themselves as truly amazing beings, untouched by the ugly mechanisms of the outside world? Imagine then the foundation of self-worth, self-love and sense of self-agency that women would grow up with, and the subsequent impact on what and how they made choices in their lives! Instead we have been taught from childhood to trust our heads and not our bodies, but when we disregard such a valuable resource, how can we know what is really going on? Could this be where the first crack in our foundation starts and can lay unnoticed until life becomes increasingly complicated over time and then, under the pressure of it all, suicide becomes seen as the best way out?

If you aren't there being your whole true self, and thus your emptiness is invested in what you do, you will never be enough. In this way of being you are never enough until someone comes along and recognises what you have done. The hidden deceit is the fact that you are never fulfilled, for you have not been seen for WHOM YOU ARE. This is the trick, the hook and the illusion of investing in what you do instead of being who you truly are.

Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume I, ed 1, p 186

What we are being asked to do is to get to know ourselves through a connection with our body from the earliest age possible and in fact, it’s never too early or too late to start to build this connection. The more closely women of any age are connected with their bodies, the more they have the opportunity to feel a stillness inside themselves in their core, also known as their essence or inner-heart, and the more it helps them to discover their enormous sensitivity and delicacy. These qualities are strengths, yet we have been taught that they are weaknesses; flaws to be subverted at all costs. The reality is however, that the more we nurture them, the higher our self-esteem and levels of self-love grow, and the less opportunity there is for mental health issues to find a way to creep in.

It isn’t about ruling out the use of medical, pharmacological and other psychosocial interventions to address our health issues. Instead, it’s about complementing what is already available by filling in the gaps within women’s health in terms of how we understand not only the drivers for suicide at any age, but also the human body in its entirety. Importantly, this holistic perspective incorporates noting the value of developing a deeply loving relationship with our body.

Connection to our inner-selves and all the qualities that lay within regardless of what has happened in life, can mean the difference between embracing the aging process as a time of enormous potential for growth – or – bracing in the overwhelm of fear and dread. The more we practise connecting to what’s inside ourselves, the more obvious our body’s messages become and in turn, provide valuable signposts throughout our life. Every little bit of self-care and self-nurturing along the way counts and the more we can connect to our inner hearts through feeling what’s happening in our bodies, the greater the volume of space we create for simplicity and settlement in our lives.

Regardless of age, we all have the ability to do this and we all have lots of wisdom inside ourselves just waiting for us to tap into at any given moment. We do have physical bodies and along with the aging process is the reality that medical problems will quite likely surface – but we do have a choice about how we live life and it can be either joyfully, or at the other end of the spectrum, in utter misery.

“The connection to myself is not something I “go and do” outside somewhere in nature, or in any specific seated position, it is a way of living – a conscious awareness of what quality I choose to carry myself in and thus, what quality will be brought to all of my actions. There are millions of different ways to express yourself in your day, going about the daily routine, in a connected awareness to what can be known as the true essence of who you innately are. This for me is Religious, the living practice of connection – anywhere, any time, any place – a living practice of connection that is equally available to all.” Natalie Benhayon (2015)

Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume II, ed 1, p 571

Women aren’t being asked to give up or change anything they don’t want to. What is being called for is an honest preparedness to experiment with what works and doesn’t work as everyone has a unique body and a different history, therefore what suits one person may not suit another.

When we know ourselves through whole body intelligence, i.e. a cohesiveness with how we feel on the inside together with what’s happening in our minds, we are at least more aware and understanding of what previously has, and currently is, going on in our lives, and therefore we are actually more in control than when we solely rely on just our brain to guide us.

There are many factors involved in readiness for change and the perception that it was too late and they were too old to change was a common theme I’ve come across in my interactions with older women; it can be a big step and the structural and physical limitations do exist. If you are an older woman experiencing poor health and pain on top of facing multiple other hardships, summoning the energy and willpower to initiate and sustain change can simply be viewed as too difficult.

It will likely feel uncomfortable at first when we start to connect inwardly as we have been taught to only pay attention to what goes on in our head and disregard what’s happening in our body as much as possible. Sometimes it’s just easier to stick with the old, familiar ways, even while knowing that the feelings of misery will continue. It also takes commitment and a willingness to keep going, even when we feel like we aren’t getting anywhere.

What I’ve learnt over the years is that we each have our own timing for when we are willing to make ourselves a priority, face what stands in the way and introduce new steps to support and sustain the growth and self-love we are all ultimately seeking. As we venture out of our comfort zones, we will undoubtedly stumble at times, but perfection isn’t the goal. If we do crash, but to the best of our ability have been tuning into and paying attention to who we are on the inside, we establish a foundation that gives us the ability to acknowledge and learn from the situation, get back up and move on again with a deeper understanding of ourselves in terms of old patterns of behaviour and thinking, and where and what our triggers are.

By learning to observe ourselves without the harsh judgment, we are providing ourselves with a type of medicine that can’t be purchased or found anywhere else. It offers a very precious foundation to bolster women’s quality of life and true health and wellbeing. The suicide rate with older women won’t change overnight, but change will occur when women start to develop an intimate, loving relationship with themselves, which will certainly have a far-reaching ripple effect that naturally supports the tide to turn.


References:

  • [1]

    Conwell, Y., K.V. Orden, and E.D. Caine, Suicide in Older Adults. The Psychiatric clinics of North America, 2011. 34(2): p. 451-468.

  • [2]

    Conejero, I., et al., Suicide in Older Adults: Current Perspectives. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 2018(13): p. 691-699.

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AgeingEldersMental healthSelf-loveWomen's health

  • By Helen Giles, Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, MMH (Family Therapy), Post Grad Cert Family Therapy & Counselling, M. EPA Recognised

    I love that life is amazing with every relationship offering constant drops of pure gold, whether that be in my work as a perinatal counsellor or through friends, family and others I meet in everyday life.

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