Suicide rates climb among elderly in Canada

The day a rural Manitoba man learned his father was too sick to drive, was the day he knew his dad would kill himself.

Less than a week later, he did just that, leaving a grieving family to pick up the pieces and instantly becoming part of a grim trend that’s emerging among seniors — they now have the highest suicide rate of any group in the country.

“I always knew in the back of my head that he was going to kill himself somehow,” says the man, whom the CBC has agreed not to identify.

“And then when he told me that he couldn’t get into the truck anymore … I knew that it was coming to an end.”

His father’s decision to die began to form soon after he was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) about two years ago.

From the outset, the prognosis was clear: sooner or later, the disease would rob him of every freedom, every bodily function and every vestige of independence he was so fiercely protective of.

“His motor skills were shutting down, he wasn’t able to walk, he couldn’t pick up the grandkids, couldn’t change a light bulb, couldn’t even open a bottle of water,” his son recalls.

“I knew that this was going to be a really bad thing for him, because he never, he never’d want to live like that. He wouldn’t have wanted to.”

Instead, one morning last March, he went to the garage, took a gun and shot himself in the head. His wife found him soon after.

“She came home from work and checked on him … he was dead,” his son says. “It was very messy, apparently. It was pretty messy.”

Days later she found his suicide note. He killed himself, it said, so his family would not have to see him deteriorate; so they would not have to witness the ravages of ALS and what it did to his independence.

His death supports two studies recently released. First, that ALS is one of the top reasons that people seek out assisted suicides in countries where it is legal — an option that his son supports, and wishes had been available to his father.

But it also reflects research that points to the climbing suicide rate among elderly men; right now across Canada, 33 out of every 100,000 seniors, especially after the age of 85, kill themselves. Most of them are white men and most die violently.

While the trend is climbing at a slightly lower rate in Manitoba, it still disturbs local mental health experts, who fear it is going dangerously unnoticed.

“The group that’s forgotten are the baby boomers and the seniors,” says George Pasieka, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Manitoba division.

“We often forget what it is because … when we deal with elderly parents or people we just dismiss it as being senile or whatever the case might be.”

There are other factors. Depression (along with terminal disease and dementias) is also increasing among the elderly — borne out of everything from the loss of a spouse to a move into a nursing home.