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Out of darkness

Posted by Ralph Ranalli September 16, 2007 07:43 AM

Older men like William Rose of Newton have the highest suicide risk in the state, officials say.
(Globe staff photo by Bill Polo)


Simply by virtue of his age, 93-year-old William Rose of Newton is at heightened risk of death. But the threat that came closest to taking his life was not old age, or illness. It was suicide.

According to the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention, men age 85 and older have the highest suicide rate in the state. So when Rose told his home healthcare aide that he was thinking of killing himself after his daughter died, she took it seriously.

Fortunately, Rose's aide, Elina Dubovsky, knew what to do. She had attended a program on how to help prevent suicide in seniors, offered by the Geriatric Institute of Jewish Family and Children's Services in Waltham, Globe West staff writer Stephanie Siek reports today.

The training offered helped Dubovsky recognize depression in her patients, including Rose.

The Geriatric Institute began running its suicide prevention program for the elderly last year, said Kathy Burnes, the institute's project manager. It's one of several programs aimed at translating research on the elderly into practical solutions to the problems of old age. The Jewish family services agency also runs a general mental health program, and one of the motivations in creating the geriatric suicide prevention program was the discovery that about 60 percent of the mental health clients were 55 or older.

The institute is nonsectarian and works with clients regardless of their religion. Its suicide prevention program, adapted from research and materials from Cornell University's Homecare Research Project, began by training agency home healthcare aides on how to recognize symptoms of depression in the seniors they cared for. The training was expanded to aides affiliated with two Boston agencies, Midtown Home Health Services and Kit Clark Senior Services. It also holds sessions to teach doctors and nurses how to train other healthcare workers. So far, the program has trained 400 home health aides, doctors, and nurses. The materials have been translated into Russian, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

"The thing we're really trying to communicate is that depression is not a normal part of aging. It's a serious medical illness," Burnes said. "Seniors who have disability, medical illness, and pain are more likely to be depressed, but many are experiencing major depression for the first time in their lives, and this is not something that they'll get over [without help]."

Read more about the hidden problem of elder suicide in the online edition of today's Globe West.

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