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When taking their own lives seem the only way out - elderly suicides rising in Singapore

Updated: May 8, 2019


When taking their own lives seem the only way out - elderly suicides rising in Singapore

The Straits Times reported in this article about elderly suicide rising in Singapore. This is especially poignant news as many of them, at this age of 65 years and above, would have slogged away their whole lives, only to find what is supposed to be their golden years just bleak and dark.

The numbers reported certainly look alarming - a jump of nearly 60% from 2000 to 2015 of the number of seniors who commit suicide, as well as a rise in the proportion of elderly among those who take their lives each year.

But as with many newspaper reports, numbers are sometimes used to sensationalize, though some are with arguably good intentions, such as raising awareness of certain issues, which I believe is the case with this.

The increase in number of elderly suicides from 79 to 126 (=47) is despairing and unfortunate. But before we jump to conclude that there is a rush to take their own lives (basing on the 60% spike), the math tells us that the large percentage jump is in part due to the small base.

Let us also put into perspective that over the same period, the elderly population of those aged above 60 years old grew 92%, from 345,799 to 663,103. Given this data, we see that the proportion of seniors who committed suicide over the total senior population has decreased, from 0.023% to 0.019%. A small percentage decrease, no doubt, but it would definitely be more alarming if this has gone up as well.

Let us compare with a suicide-prone country like Japan, where elderly suicides make up 17.3% of total suicides. In Singapore, that proportion is 30%, which will make us gasp, until we look at the absolute numbers: 4,716 in Japan versus 126 in Singapore. This is not meant to be a heartless comparison of cold numbers to conclude that we did 'better' but a lesson in putting numbers in perspective, at the same time that we want to highlight issues using them.

What is also not reported is the gender difference in numbers, which sheds an interesting light.

Senior Suicide by Gender

The increase is contributed mainly (81%) by males. While this is not a surprising statistic worldwide (in Japan for example, men accounted for 68.9% of suicides) and on a big picture basis (in Singapore too, men accounted for 70% of suicides across all ages), it is helpful in terms of suicide prevention and awareness, both to the authorities and the public. It will help studies into various precipitating factors of suicide between men and women.

Suicide Trend in Singapore

In the article, Ms Chan Wai Ping, counsellor at Tsao Foundation's Hua Mei Centre for successful ageing said that the major issue is: "They lose a sense of purpose, lack confidence in coping with further deterioration and don't want to be a burden as their care needs get more demanding."

It is hypothesized that men feel this even more profoundly because many are used to being the breadwinner of the family and having retired or lost employment, they also lose their sense of purpose and can go into depression. Men are also less likely than women to engage in social interaction or group activities organised for seniors, as observed by Mr Choo Jin Kiat, Executive Director of O'Joy Care Services. This heightens the sense of social isolation, which is a leading factor driving suicide, and compounded by concerns over failing health.

Another article also reported that almost 90% of the ComCare Long-term Assistance payments (a key social safety net) is given to those aged 60 years and above, highlighting the rising number of financially vulnerable elderly, which could also easily cause poor health. About 83% of them are single or widowed and live alone. But as Associate Professor Angelique Chan of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School also rightly pointed out: "programmes that focus solely on older adults living alone may miss a large group of lonely older adults living with children."

Therefore community-based intervention and social programmes, such as those provided by O'Joy Care Services can play a big role in prevention, through (1) providing companionship, friendship and support (2) actively involving and empowering the elderly in their own health management and ageing process with educational workshops (3) staff and volunteers of those programmes identifying symptoms of depression or cognitive decline.


Statistics sources: National Suicide Statistics from Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), Population Statistics from www.singstat.gov.sg

Photo credit: www.StraitsTimes.com

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