Social Isolation/Men

MikeMldvn mikemldvn at aol.com
Sat Feb 3 16:03:19 EST 1996


In a recent article on suicide among older adults, the Centers for Disease
Control was reported to have found that:

*Men, who account for 81 percent of elderly suicides, were 
2.7 times as likely to kill themselves if they were divorced or 
widowed than if they were married.*  

The news item stated:   ``The underlying factor that seems to play a part
in almost all suicides is the feeling of hopelessness. If you can give the
person an alternative to suicide they're willing to take it,'' 
(CDC) said. ``Most people who are thinking about taking their 
own life are willing to do something else.''

***
 
I've posted quite a number of items on social isolation and suicide
prevention among older adults to the AOL SeniorNet forum and to Internet
newsgroups over the past several  years.  I recently checked some of my 
notes on social isolation and suicide among the elderly, and thought that
posting some of the material here might get by without too many
complaints; the issue, in my opinion, is far more of a *social* than a
*health* issue.   (I make no claim to expertese on the subject; I am a lay
person, however, my sources include government and institutional reports,
like the Public Health Service's *Healthy People 2000*, the journals and
newsletters of the American Association of Suicidology, and other
professional literature that is not overly technical for my understanding.
 Occasionally I add my impressions and experiences,  and post online,
hoping that the info might be of interest to others.)

***For example, from the Healthy People 2000 studies:

"Social isolation is both a risk factor for disease and a measure of
reduced functional independence.   Social support networks are of critical
importance in promoting the health and independence of older adults.  
Life changes common to the seventh and eighth decades can increase the
risk of social isolation.   Retirement and changes in social roles can
affect systems of contact and support, as can the loss of spouses and
close friends.

"Community support networks that provide services to help older adults
maintain independence are also critical interventions for reducing social
isolations.   Primary care providers can also play a critical role, not
only in the identification of individuals at risk, but also by supplying
information and referral to available services."

...a personal experience:

Several years ago, as an experiment in dealing with my own social
isolation, I tried to organize a group of about a dozen older men to meet
weekly at a senior center near my home.   Following quotes one of several
public announcements I mailed to the local media, retirement communities,
and leading social and civic groups:

"SENIOR MEN FORM DISCUSSION GROUP AT (name of center)

"Male senior citizens are invited to meet 9 AM each Friday at the (place
-- address) for coffee and to talk.  Those who come can just listen to
others tell about about places they've been, things they've seen and done,
and what really happened to them after they retired compared to what they
expected.   If anyone wants to, they can give a personal "...how goes
it..." about themselves.   Meetings will usually open with a brief
discussion on a subject of general interest.   No charge;  no
solicitations;  nothing being sold;  open to the public.

"The potential value of  (the group) to the community is based on the U.
S. Public Health Service's (PHS) September 1990 report Healthy People 2000
which states that there are many opportunities which can be taken during
the decade to enhance the well-being and health of all Americans.

"The PHS summary report emphasizes that all levels sectors of our society
are involved, especially within local  communities.   The (name of group)
is NOT a support group where participants examine their own involvement in
a shared experience.   The concept, rather, is based on PHS observations
in (the quote from "Social Networks," above) " 
       
 (End of Announcement)

Attendance at several of the weekly gatherings ranged from one (me) to
five (at one meeting) but most often, one other older man.   No problem
about interaction though;  each one-hour meetings was fully taken up with
discussions on a variety of subjects.   In short, those men who did show
up agreed the gathering was worth while.   After about a half-dozen
meetings I was the only one who showed up, so that was it.

The lack of success probably had several reasons:  the meeting place was
not within easy walking distance of retirement communities and residential
areas, and parking space for motor vehicles was limited.   It might also
be that part of the problem was that socially isolated older men need to
break out from their taciturnity, and their inability to admit to the
social isolation in which they find themselves.  This is especially true
among men in their seventh and beyond decades who no longer have the
powerful motivational bonds of continuity and human interaction which
accompanied Job, and wife and children who depended on them.   This
reluctance to speak seems to be widespread among older men in our American
culture;  nevertheless, older men who experience losses (health, finances,
marital, bereavement, etc.) often do blur their focus and motivations on
positive values and drift into apathy, despair, and hopelessness.

Being active with hobbies, chores, social, political, civic and religious
commitments does provide focus for many older men, however, for others
that isn't the answer.   What is it, then, that disheartens so many older
men and which so significantly raises their suicide rates above those of
women?   The year 2000 health objective to reduce suicide among older men
is going to take far more community involvement than ever before as well
as initiatives and self-help by the family   --  and by the man with the
problem, himself.

Healthy People 2000, under the heading "Educational and Community-based
Programs" states:  "Many [programs] involve various sectors and levels of
society.   Changes in the social and physical environment call for the
involvement of social institutions, businesses, legislative and judicial
bodies, the media, and other parts of the community.   Because
comprehensive, community-wide programs aim to draw upon and become
involved in as many aspects of community life as possible, they require a
high degree of cooperation and coordination between groups that are often
not traditional partners:  environmental citizens' groups and
manufacturers, health professionals and churches, employers and hospitals.
  Important to the success of these partnerships are information networks
and coordinating mechanisms, both of which can help streamline services
and interventions."

Structured programs to deal with social isolation and emotional well-being
among the older adults of our society are still in their infancy.  
Suicide prevention among older men is merely one of the many social issues
on the nation's back burners.   Meanwhile, at the personal level, the
natural reluctance in elderly men to even admit to their social isolation
might intensify its pressure and their inner drive toward a solution,
including suicide.

Conversely, the elderly man who actively motivates himself and practices
self-help, by seeking out opportunities for social interaction and
self-expression, reduces the adverse effects of social isolation on
himself.   The community that creates opportunities and provides
resources, and suggests methodologies to optimize a person's desire and
will for such self-help, deserves to be high on the list of essential
health care and social services, senior centers, retirement communities,
and other networking systems.
 
The Public Health Service's data and observations about social isolation
among older adults, and the high rates of suicide among older men, are
disturbing (as they should be).   When the mental health system, from
national level to neighborhood, realizes that the rate is indeed
excessive, that it could be lowered over time by invigorated personal
self-help capabilities, in addition to affordable professional services,
and invests in stimulating such self-help, then we'll make progress.   The
worst thing the "system" can do is turn its back.




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