Some years ago, out of the blue I drew up a chair and sat down at a table with a group of elders in a supermarket cafeteria. Today I’m a regular at these weekly encounters so much so that an unannounced absence on my part would undoubtedly raise concerns. While sipping coffee with the group I listen to stories, many of which are repeats from previous weeks, about their past accomplishments and jobs and also complaints about the current generation. Some of them struggle from time to time with wanting to return to their “glory days”. All by all they’re aging gracefully, in general very upbeat, with no discernible major health or money problems.
So it was a surprise last week to all of a sudden hear one elder person say that it did not make a lot of sense to continue living. The person apparently was told recently by the doctor to stop eating various types of food as a preventive health measure. The person questioned what sense it makes to live on if you can’t eat what gives you satisfaction. “Am I asking for too much?” the person wondered whilst looking away, obviously unwilling to lock eyes with anyone sitting at the table. It became quiet around the table. No one offered any answers.
My mind drifted immediately to my mother who in the last stages of her life also told my sister and I that she was ready to go. It was as if she told us to not do anything to prevent her desire to cross the great divide. Questions that lingered at that time and still remain unanswered today: Are we investing in pricey science to keep people alive who do not want to live? Should we do anything to keep people alive?
In an article in The Straits Times, a leading Singaporean newspaper, it was reported that the number of elderly people taking their own lives reached a record high last year. According to the U.S. Centrals of Disease Control, elderly people had the highest suicide rate in the U.S.. And this seems to be the case in most developed countries.
But I digress. Why does a person who is seemingly healthy have these thoughts? According to experts many seniors fear becoming a burden, social disconnection, and the inability to function in daily life. Not being able to eat what you always ate, does probably prevent you from leading a normal life. Especially when you’ve had to adjust to many other changes, be it social, physical and mental that comes with aging. This can and does cause depression. Depression in the elderly is rarely detected much less addressed because that behavior is considered – even by the elderly person suffering from depression- as just part of growing old. To make things worse, the elderly today grew up in a time when depression and other mental disorders meant being stigmatized, much more than today. Accepting depression is for this group difficult. More education and effort are needed to notice when something’s not right with our elders. As the population in Curaçao ages, we need to quickly invest in policy changes regarding the elderly. We need to invest more in their mental health.