SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It's hard to grow old in America. Annette Baslaw Finger is almost 90, lives in a comfortable apartment in Manhattan lined with books, art and family photos. She made it out of Nazi-occupied France, has children and grandchildren in the area, and says she knows she's blessed. But...
ANNETTE BASLAW FINGER: I thought that when you are getting older, it comes in little steps. You know, slowly. First one thing is a little bit weaker, then another, then another is. You know? But it turned out that everything happens at the same time. And all of a sudden, you find that, well, you don't hear so well, and you don't see so well. And all of a sudden, you inhabit a body you don't even recognize.
SIMON: People can live longer but lose a lot of everyday abilities, which can frustrate and depress the elderly. Then they lose people close to them - children who grow up and move around the country, spouses and siblings who die, friends who begin to fade.
BASLAW FINGER: I lost one friend who died as a result of Alzheimer. And she, at the end, didn't know who I was at all, you know? So you lose them before they die.
BASLAW FINGER: And cancer and all kinds of things. That's one of the most difficult things.
SIMON: And here we should say that parts of this story will be hard to hear because it's about this sobering statistic. People 65 years of age and older now account for nearly a fifth of all suicides in this country. And older people who attempt suicide are much more likely to die.
JERRY REED: I think you begin to question your value. You begin to question your purpose.
SIMON: Dr. Jerry Reed is the senior vice president at the Education Development Center in Washington, D.C., where he works to prevent suicides among the elderly.
REED: If you start to feel like you don't belong and you're a burden, and you have access to lethal means - whether it's medication, whether it's a firearm or whatever - and you don't think there's hope or resolution in the future, those dynamics can contribute to you starting to think about, maybe the world would be better off without me.
SIMON: Many experts cite many reasons why this may be true but often begin by saying a lot of elderly people no longer feel useful.
JULIE RICKARD: I think we have a culture of when you work, you have value, and when you no longer work, we kind of dismiss you.
SIMON: Dr. Julie Rickard founded the Suicide Prevention Coalition of North Central Washington state in 2012 following a rash of suicides nearby.
RICKARD: The thing I get asked often is, you know, why do we care? Right? And I think, you know, people say, well, they're going to die, anyway. They're seniors, and isn't that part of being older? And so people feel that, and seniors feel that. And I know that part of the struggle that my mom has had is a loss of identity.
SIMON: Dr. Rickard brought her mother, Sheri Adler, to our interview. She's 72, has suffered two strokes and says older people with frailties can, in her words, hide in their houses.
SHERI ADLER: Sometimes I'm afraid to drive. And sometimes I'm afraid to go anywhere because I'm afraid I'm going to fall, and I hurt myself really bad when I fall. So it kind of leaves me in the house, and it's sad. You get lonely. I mean, that's why I go, like, to Walmart and talk to all the old people 'cause nobody else will talk to me. But they like to talk.
SIMON: A few months ago, during a holiday dinner, a member of their family who has a mental illness said something hurtful and personal to Sheri Adler. His family loves him and understand his struggles.
ADLER: But I think that it was just more than I could handle. And I just made a stupid mistake. I guess I just wanted to give up because I felt like I wasn't a good mom. And that's all I ever wanted to be.
SIMON: I've got to ask you what that stupid mistake was.
ADLER: (Laughter). Well, tried to kill myself.
RICKARD: Yeah. Yeah. That was a tough call I received.
SIMON: Dr. Rickard was on her way home at the time. Her mother had driven her to the airport, and she had to change planes on her way back to Washington state.
RICKARD: And so during that layover, she called and said, I just want to say goodbye, I love you, and I just appreciate everything you've ever done. And normally, I would think that's a sign of suicide. But it was during my layover. So I had just left her, and my whole life, she had always cried when I left and, you know, would always say I love you, and - this time...
ADLER: I'm sorry.
RICKARD: ...It was goodbye.
ADLER: It was very painful for both Julie and I.
RICKARD: It's one of those things where I question myself because of my work that I do, and I'm preventing suicide with everybody, but not my mom.
ADLER: But it wasn't her fault. It's not like I told her anything. 'Cause I didn't tell her anything 'cause I didn't even know that things got so bad that I was just numb.
SIMON: Sheri Adler got professional help, including medication, and says she's no longer so despondent. She thinks she might move closer to her daughter in Washington state. Dr. Rickard says her own mother's suicide attempt reminds her why many elderly people find it hard to seek help. They're often parents and grandparents who've seen a lot of life. They feel they should be the ones who offer help.
ADLER: Well, yeah. I've always been the one to do it.
RICKARD: She's always been the strong one, right? I mean, my mom was the warrioress in my life. And so now roles are reversed. And I think it's hard.
ADLER: I raised my kids alone. And I've just always been there for all my children. And now it's the other way around. It's hard.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)
AMANDA WEISS: Hey, Annette. How are you?
SIMON: A young woman, named Amanda Weiss, often stops by to visit Annette Baslaw Finger in her New York apartment.
WEISS: What have you been up to today?
BASLAW FINGER: Well, I wouldn't call it too exciting. Part of it was, in the morning, I went to see the eye doctor to see how I was progressing. And it wasn't...
SIMON: She's a volunteer with a local group called Dorot, Hebrew for generations, that provides services to elderly people. The two women think of their visits as a friendship between generations. As the number of elderly people in the United States grows and their challenges multiply, simple human contact can remind them of the gifts of life. Annette Baslaw Finger told us...
BASLAW FINGER: It's really good to be alive. It's really good to smell a flower, or to see things bloom, or to see the sunset, or to hear the voice of somebody you love - all the things that really make a day special.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: And if you feel you're in a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255.
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