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Communicating with a Senior Who Might be Suicidal

by Dr. Patrick Arbore, Elder Abuse & Depression Expert
October 14, 2011

Question: I think my grandfather is suicidal. What should I say or not say while talking to him about it?

Answer: If you suspect your grandfather is suicidal, I wonder what triggered this decision on your part. Did your grandfather say or do something that made you think that he may be contemplating taking his own life? I would urge you to take any comment about suicide seriously. 

My suggestion would be to:

(1) Speak with your grandfather directly about suicide by asking “Are you thinking about suicide?”

(2) Be aware that suicidal people are ambivalent about suicide -- there is a part of him that wants to die and a part of him that wants to live – say to him “I know that you are thinking about suicide. However, there seems to be a part of you that wants to live as well. Please tell me more about how you are feeling.”

(3) Encourage your grandfather to talk – let him know that you are listening to him, that you care for him, and that you would not be better off if he died.

(4) If you believe your grandfather is in imminent danger of harming himself, i.e., he has a plan and the means to kill himself (a firearm, pills/drugs/alcohol) you will need to call 911 immediately. 

Either way, this situation can be difficult on you. You may need to speak to someone yourself if a crisis arises.  Make sure that you discuss your feelings with a family member, friend, or a professional. Your grandfather may be experiencing a depression, which is one of the greatest risk factors for suicide ideation. If he is depressed, he needs help. Please contact his primary care physician as soon as possible.     

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Dr. Patrick Arbore is the Founder and Director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services (CESP), a program offered by the Institute on Aging in San Francisco. Dr. Arbore conducts workshops and lectures locally and nationally on aging-related subjects. He is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on suicide prevention, bereavement, suffering, etc., including a chapter he co-authored in the book, “When Professionals Weep".

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