A tragic trend: Depression, suicide by Placer County’s seniors follows national trend
October 30, 2007
Tahoe-Truckee senior citizens are not immune from a national trend showing a high rate of suicide in those supposedly living their golden years.
One in four suicides in Placer County is committed by someone 65 years of age or older, according to a statement released earlier this month by the Placer County Sheriff Coroner-Marshal. Locally, low-income seniors battling depression or suicidal tendencies have few places to turn in the Tahoe and Truckee areas, according to a Placer County report.
“It’s not a new trend. What we’re discovering is this is what is nationally true,” Maureen Bauman, Placer County’s director of mental health, said in a phone interview. “We believe that one of the primary variables is depression among the elderly. We have some myths among society that maybe depression is normal among the elderly … I guess that what we would like to do is dispel that myth.”
National statistics show that for every 100,000 elderly people, 14.3 commit suicide in a given year, according to annual rates released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The national trend spurred Placer County to check local statistics. Sheriff-Coroner spokesperson Dena Erwin said she derived statistic from coroner reports that record the age, gender and method of death of persons who die in Placer County. Erwin reviewed records since 2004.
Once compiled, the numbers revealed that nearly 25 percent of all suicides in Placer County occur in the elderly age group, Erwin said.
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Bauman encouraged residents to reach out to friends or family members who may not seem like themselves. If given the resources and support, suicide is preventable, she said.
“It’s alarming in the fact that suicide is a very, very tragic event,” Bauman said. “It’s important for folks to have an awareness, and know about the resources.”
While the county offers programs for seniors who are victims of depression and at risk for suicide such as their Senior Peer Counseling Program, Adult Protective Services and a 24-hour response telephone line, most of the programs are based on the county’s western slope in Auburn, Bauman said.
Officials from local counseling agencies and senior organizations say mental health support is lacking in the Tahoe-Truckee area for low-income seniors who are susceptible to suicide.
“In other words, if there’s a low-income senior who needs counseling, where would they go?” asked Executive Director Melanie Kaufman of the Sierra Senior Center.
The gap used to be filled by the Wellspring Counseling Center in Truckee, Kaufman said. But since the service closed its doors this summer due to funding constraints, resources are limited for seniors who are on Medicare, or have limited or no insurance.
Phebe Bell, a program officer with the Truckee Tahoe Community Foundation, is spearheading a group comprised of “interested and invested people,” including both Placer and Nevada counties, to fill the void in the community’s counseling resources.
“What that is going to look like, we don’t know yet,” Bell said. “There are some conversations going, and we are optimistic that some sort of solution is going to happen.”
For the present, local agencies are pooling their resources to provide an intricate web of support for the elderly population.
“We’re so small up here that a lot of us, a lot of the agencies, kind of gather forces … and try to fill in the blanks,” said program manager Barbara Hopkins of the Sierra Family Services. “We’ve got a great collaborative network up here.”
Sierra Family Services offers a crisis response program that connects vulnerable seniors to the resources they need.
“That’s kind of how we create services for people up here,” said Tracy Barrett, a marriage and family therapist with Sierra Family Services. “We get together with people who do little bits and pieces of this particular work and we create a support network for this person that is going to work for them.”
While the Sierra Senior Center offers programs and provides nutritional support for the elderly, it does not provide mental health services, said Kaufman.
The Placer County Adult Protective Services checks on referred seniors who are vulnerable or having difficulty living independently, said counselor Barbara Tenney. If needed, Tenney refers the individual to Sierra Family Services or the home health program for further support.
“All the social workers kind of pitch in and we go where we need to go when we get a referral,” said Ann Ajari, a social worker with the hospital’s home health program.