Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

“Why do they become vulnerable when faced with the challenges of old age?” Elderly people who committed suicide, described by those who knew them

  • Ildri Kjølseth (a1), Øivind Ekeberg (a2) and Sissel Steihaug (a3)

Background: Suicidal behavior among the elderly is a research field in which qualitative and quantitative methods can and should supplement each other. The objective of this qualitative study is to investigate whether the descriptions of elderly people who committed suicide, given by those who knew them, can provide common features that create recognizable patterns, and if so whether these patterns can help to shed light on the suicidal process.

Method: This is a psychological autopsy study based on qualitative interviews with 63 informants concerning 23 suicides committed by persons aged over 65 in Norway. The informants were relatives, their family doctors, and home-based care nurses. In general, the analysis of the interviews follows the systematic text condensation method.

Results: The descriptions have three main topics: life histories, personality traits and relationships. “Life histories” includes the sub-topics ability to survive and action-oriented achievers. They describe people who came through difficult circumstances when growing up and who were action-oriented in life in general and in crises. “Personality traits” includes the sub-topics obstinacy and controlling others. The informants saw the elderly people as strong-willed, obstinate and possessing a considerable ability to control themselves and those around them. “Relationships” includes the sub-topics I didn't know him and He showed no ability to meet us halfway, and describes the informants’ experience of emotionally closed persons who kept a distance in their relationships.

Conclusions: On the basis of the descriptions of the elderly people given in this study, we argue that these individuals will find difficulty in accepting and adapting to age-related loss of function since their self-esteem is so strongly associated with being productive and in control. Loss of control reveals their vulnerability – and this they cannot tolerate.

Corresponding author
Correspondence should be addressed to: Ildri Kjølseth, RVTS, Oslo University Hospital, Aker, 0514 Oslo, Norway. Phone: +47 22029007. Email:
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

R. F. Baumeister (1990). Suicide as escape from self. Psychological Review, 97, 90113.

A. L. Beautrais (2002). A case control study of suicide and attempted suicide in older adults. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 32, 19.

J. Brandtstadter and G. Renner (1990). Tenacious goal pursuit and flexible goal adjustment: explication and age-related analysis of assimilative and accommodative strategies of coping. Psychology & Aging, 5, 5867.

Y. Conwell (2000). Completed suicide among older patients in primary care practices: a controlled study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 48, 2329.

L. Crocker , L. Clare and K. Evans (2006). Giving up or finding a solution? The experience of attempted suicide in later life. Aging and Mental Health, 10, 638647.

B. Draper (2008). Long-term effects of childhood abuse on the quality of life and health of older people: results from the Depression and Early Prevention of Suicide in General Practice Project. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 56, 262271.

P. R. Duberstein , Y. Conwell and E. D. Caine (1994). Age differences in the personality characteristics of suicide completers: preliminary findings from a psychological autopsy study. Psychiatry, 57, 213224.

P. R. Duberstein , Y. Conwell and C. Cox (1998). Suicide in widowed persons. A psychological autopsy comparison of recently and remotely bereaved older subjects. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 6, 328334.

D. Harwood and R. Jacoby (2000). Suicidal behaviour among the elderly. In K. Hawton and K. van Heeringen (eds.), The International Handbook of Suicide and Attempted Suicide (pp. 275291). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

D. Harwood , K. Hawton , T. Hope and R. Jacoby (2001). Psychiatric disorder and personality factors associated with suicide in older people: a descriptive and case-control study. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 16, 155165.

J. Heckhausen and R. Schulz (1999). The primacy of primary control is a human universal: a reply to Gould's (1999) critique of the life-span theory of control. Psychological Review, 106, 605609.

K. Malterud (2001). Qualitative research: standards, challenges, and guidelines. Lancet, 358, 483488.

K. Malterud (2002). Reflexivity and metapositions: strategies for appraisal of clinical evidence. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 8, 121126.

S. L. Moore (1997). A phenomenological study of meaning in life in suicidal older adults. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 11, 2936.

B. Morling and S. Evered (2006). Secondary control reviewed and defined. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 269296.

L. Pouliot and De D. Leo (2006). Critical issues in psychological autopsy studies. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 36, 491510.

F. Rothbaum and J. Weisz (1982). Changing the world and changing the self: a two-process model of perceived control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 537.

K. Rothermund and J. Brandtstadter (2003). Coping with deficits and losses in later life: from compensatory action to accommodation. Psychology and Aging, 18, 896905.

A. Shah (2007). The relationship between suicide rates and age: an analysis of multinational data from the World Health Organization. International Psychogeriatrics, 19, 11411152.

E. A. Skinner (1996). A guide to constructs of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 549570.

M. Waern , E. Rubenowitz , B. Runeson , I. Skoog , K. Wilhelmson and P. Allebeck (2002). Burden of illness and suicide in elderly people: case-control study. BMJ, 324, 1355.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Psychogeriatrics
  • ISSN: 1041-6102
  • EISSN: 1741-203X
  • URL: /core/journals/international-psychogeriatrics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 16
Total number of PDF views: 64 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 500 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd September 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.