Elder suicide looks us in the eye, thanks to columns written by Leslie Linthicum in the Albuquerque Journal.

The facts: In the northeastern community of Roy, Geraldine Ray, 89, was found lying face down on her bed with cotton balls up her nose, plastic filling her mouth, and packing tape across her lips. The state Office of the Medical Investigator called it a homicide, despite two suicide notes in Ray's own hand. The woman's daughter was arrested for murder. Her family never believed that for a moment, neither did Linthicum, and science backed them up. Charges were dropped.

OMI didn't think a person could kill herself that way. They must never have met a willful woman. I come from a family of willful women, and you'd be surprised what they can do.

I had just returned from eye-opening visits with elderly relatives out of state, so Linthicum's column hit me in the heart.

Cousin Betty (name changed), my role model, was gorgeous, successful in her job, known by everybody in her Roswell-sized town, married with two boys, and managed the perfect home. She now has macular degeneration and can no longer drive, she's diabetic, and she's had one hip and both knees replaced, not entirely successfully, so she walks with a cane. Four months ago, her husband died.

Recently, doctors found a brain aneurism. She refused the operation. "What's the point? I'm 80," she says.

Cousin Bea, 77, worked all her life and also took care of her siblings for her mother (the queen of willful women) long before becoming a mom herself. She had just returned to her son's house after a stint in a nursing home from the latest medical disaster. She lives with a host of health problems, including severe arthritis.

Both are depressed, Bea profoundly so. Frankly, I'd be depressed too. In what's poetically called the winter of their lives, they have to find a reason to go on. In many cultures, elders relax into a nest of family. For certain people, that doesn't work.

Geraldine Ray had arrived at that point. She'd been a rancher, a fiddle player and singer, a hunter — one of those larger than life people we enjoy knowing. At 89, she had macular degeneration, had grown frail and didn't want to be a burden to her family. It doesn't matter that her family didn't consider her a burden; this kind of helplessness is misery to an independent person.

In our society we glorify the 92-year-old man who still goes to work every day, the 85-year-old woman who still rides her bike, the elderly Japanese woman who climbed Mt. Fuji. Many of us expect to become those people. Aging means we'll keep on doing all the things we like to do, only with more wrinkles and pains.

We don't factor in life-altering change until it strikes. Then we discover we haven't thought much about how to maintain a useful or dignified life within the limitations thrown at us by Father Time.

Geraldine Ray's family asked Linthicum to discuss the incidence of suicide among elders (it's higher than the population as a whole) "as well as ways to maintain an enriched environment for our elderly loved ones who were once extremely independent."

It's a family conversation and a community conversation. Our elders don't need more senior centers. They do need usefulness and connection.

Usefulness invites creativity. What can they do to make a contribution to the community or the family? Connection involves transportation. Some communities have door-to-door transportation for elders or programs of volunteer drivers.

I struggled to say something helpful to my cousins, but my words seemed weak. Still, I'm glad I made the visit. Sometimes the family web seems delicate as a spider web, but the threads are strong.

 

Sherry Robinson is a New Mexico journalist who began her career in 1976 and has served as assistant business editor and columnist with the Albuquerque Journal, editor of New Mexico Business Weekly and business editor of the Albuquerque Tribune.