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Picture of lonely old woman sitting on the wheelchair while looking at sunlight. Shot in the park from Shutterstock.com

Suicide rates among the elderly have increased – why?

In 2017, there were 361 recorded cases of suicides in Singapore according to the report on deaths and births by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. 239 were male and 122 were female. The average age of those who died by suicide: 51 years old.

Vice News recently highlighted the shocking rise of suicides among the elderly in Singapore, noting that 129 adults over the age of 60 committed suicide in 2017, the highest number recorded for that age group since Singapore began tracking suicide cases in 1991, even as the figures for other age groups declined.

An employee of a big funeral company told VICE Asia that he comes across bodies of jumpers several times a week. Johari (not his real name) said that most of these victims’ faces are disfigured beyond repair. So they’re given closed-casket funerals.

Shocking though the figures are, Johari said he believes that there are many cases that remain unaccounted. TOC understands that the local media are given instructions not to report on suicides that they are made aware of due to the fear of promoting copycat suicides and also the negative impression that it gives the public.

As for why suicide is so prevalent among the elderly in Singapore, Johari shared that debt accumulated from habitual gambling, medical fees or living expenses are some of the factors that lead to suicide – based on his conversations with many of the victim’s families.

Vice notes that Singapore – ‘the Switzerland of Asia’ – is known to be one of the most expensive and most stressful cities in the world. In 2017, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Singapore as the most expensive city to live in. It’s a top spot the nation has claimed repeatedly over the years.

A running joke among locals, says Vice, is that you might not be able to live in Singapore, but can afford to die here.

A staff member of the non-profit suicide prevention organisation, Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) told Vice that some of the reasons someone might commit suicide include ‘a deep sense of dispair, helpessness, hopelessness, a sense of being overwhelmed and meaninglessness’.

Medical expenses in Singapore, though subsidised, is a huge burden to bear for retirees who are not as financially able as working adults. One 70-year old retiree who is living off his retirement savings told Vice that he spends about S$1,135 a month to care for his wife who has dementia. That includes costs of daycare, medication, a helper, food, utilities, and extras like diapers and additional medical expenses. That’s quite a large sum for someone without a steady income.

For those who are unable to financially support themselves, the burden then falls upon their children. The SOS staff member says that some of their elderly callers say they feel socially disconnected and they fear becoming a burden to their family and friends.

Singapore is home to a rapidly ageing population with a low birth rate. This means that the ratio of working adults to dependents is on a steep decline. By 2030, it’s expected that there will be more than 900,000 people over the age of 65. This drastically alters the ratio of working age adults (20-64) to seniors (agreed 65 and above) to just 2.3 to 1. Less than half of what it is right now, at 4.7 to 1.

“Being dependent on others, like their family members or caregivers, may lead to feelings of worthlessness. The lack of a close social circle may exacerbate the feelings of helplessness and worthlessness,” said the SOS staff. This contributes to that ever narrowing tunnel vision that life where the elderly can no longer see outside of their desperate situation.

“They feel trapped, unable to control or change their circumstances, and so take action on the only thing they still have control of – their lives,” he added.

However, the staff member emphasised that suicide is preventable and that many suicidal people do not actually want to die. They want to live so desperately, but they can’t seem to find a way to,” he said. “They feel like they have exhausted all their options and the pain they are experiencing is well beyond them.”

Fortunately, there are several government agencies dedicated to dignified ageing and work in tandem to care for seniors in all living situations, says Vice.

These organizations hold group activities for the elderly, assign volunteers to befriend elders living in homes for the aged, cluster homes and private homes, and also keep an eye on isolated and at-risk elders. These statutory boards also encourage charity and philanthropy through various activities and campaigns, and explore different ways of supporting caregivers.

That’s all great, but even with all these help made available, why are senior Singaporeans still taking their own lives? And if the extreme financial burden is what’s leading senior to feel helpless and hopeless, perhaps that’s what these agencies need to focus their attention on – making it easier for seniors to enjoy their golden years, unhampered by the worries of how they’re going to pay for their next medical treatment. And the government is definitely not helping when it made changes to the CPF Life scheme for the payout to automatically start at the age of 70 years old instead of 65.