Kaiser News recently reported that many seniors are so scared of the thought that they will be abused and neglected in nursing homes that some discuss “rational suicide”. The concept of rational suicide is highly controversial; it runs counter to many societal norms, religious and moral convictions, and the efforts of suicide prevention workers who contend that every life is worth saving. More seniors are weighing the possibility of suicide, experts say, as the baby boomer generation — known for valuing autonomy and self-determination — reaches older age at a time when modern medicine can keep human bodies alive far longer than ever.
Is it better to die on your own terms? The question itself is taboo. Many want the option to take “preemptive action” before their health declines in their later years, particularly because of dementia. A Kaiser Health News investigation in April found that older Americans — a few hundred per year, at least — are killing themselves while living in or transitioning to long-term care. Many cases KHN reviewed involved depression or mental illness.
Dena Davis is a bioethics professor at Lehigh University who defends “rational suicide” — the idea that suicide can be a well-reasoned decision, not a result of emotional or psychological problems. Davis, 72, has been vocal about her desire to end her life rather than experience a slow decline because of dementia, as her mother did.
Suicide prevention experts contend that while it’s normal to think about death as we age, suicidal ideation is a sign that people need help. They argue that all suicides should be avoided by addressing mental health and helping seniors live a rich and fulfilling life.
Public opinion research has shown shifting opinions among doctors and the general public about hastening death. Nationally, 72 percent of Americans believe that doctors should be allowed by law to end a terminally ill patient’s life if the patient and his or her family request it, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.
If you or someone you know has talked about contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or use the online Lifeline Crisis Chat, both available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People 60 and older can call the Institute on Aging’s 24-hour, toll-free Friendship Line at 800-971-0016. IOA also makes ongoing outreach calls to lonely older adults.