By Gary LeBlanc
Nothing devastates a family like the loss of a loved one through suicide. It is such an uncomprehensible tragedy that it leaves everyone speechless, without ever having any real answers.
With senior adult couples the rate of Homicide-Suicide increases 50 percent—higher than younger adults. For those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases, these so-called Caregiver-Dependent Homicide-Suicides, make up a large percentage of senior deaths.
When a couple who has been married for a long period of time becomes totally dependent upon one another and one becomes, or both become irreversibly ill, Homicide-Suicide may appear to be the only answer. Periods of deep depression may trigger feelings of utter hopelessness, especially on the part of the husband who feels helpless in realizing he can no longer fulfill what he deems to be his husbandly duties. This usually has him initiating the terminal act. Do not interpret this as a suicide pact; this is an act of “desperation” and “hopelessness”.
One caregiver resource report showed that after the patient has died, nearly 60 percent of caregivers experience clinical signs of depression; and 40 percent of former caregivers have mild to severe depression which can last up to three years.
Family members and friends need to watch for signs that could lead to thoughts of attempting suicide. Over a decade ago my brother took his own life. There were signs scattered all around me, none of which ever came to mind until it was too late. There is a window of opportunity for intervention in almost all these suicidal situations, so again, close friends and family members just have to be alert enough to notice them.
My brother was a nurse. I remember that he once told me, “I can handle any part of the physical illness of the patient, but I simply cannot deal with the mental illness.” I am not suggesting my father’s Alzheimer’s was the cause of my brother’s suicide; but our insufferable family problem now is that we will never know. I can honestly say, however, that I was so angry at my brother, it stopped me from ever properly grieving for him.
Many people do not realize the extraordinary circumstances connected with a suicide. For example, it became difficult for my family to make plans for a funeral. The medical examiner wouldn’t release my brother’s body for cremation until all forensic tests came back without any complications. This took almost a month during which my mother was devastated. There was no closure for our family and I suspect there might never be any. It took almost two months before I received a death certificate.
Beware of any sudden changes in caregivers’ behaviors. If they start giving away their prized possessions, crying for no reason, experiencing insomnia, refusing social interaction, putting their final affairs in order or voicing feelings of helplessness, these are just a few of the forewarning signs.
Families need to pay close attention to their loved ones—be they caregivers or patients—especially senior members, as the incidence of dementia-related diseases and, often, accompanying suicides is rising to astonishing levels.
We all hope that a cure for all dementia-related diseases will be discovered, but until that time we’re just going to have to watch each other’s backs. Suicide can become a silent turning point that changes a family forever.