We hear a lot about New Zealand’s dreadful suicide rates and what should be done about them, especially when young men are involved. But what is rarely said is that, proportion to population, there are very high rates per 100,000 population for men aged 85 plus.
I pointed this out in the “From Birth to Death” series of books which I wrote in the 1980s and 1990s, published first by the New Zealand Planning Council and later through the Institute for Policy Studies at Victoria University. The graph below shows the 1994 figures for suicides per 100,000 population by age and sex. In this year the highest rates were for males aged 80 plus, the next highest group being males aged 20-24.
Yet Ministry of Health reports up to the 2000s can still state -“Adults aged 65 plus years generally had the lowest rates of suicide”. This is another example of how clumping together the whole population aged 65 plus can distort, and, in this case, cover up important trends and differences.
The comparatively high suicide rate among older men seems to have been recently rediscovered. A headline in the New Zealand Herald in February 2019 read “High suicide rate among elderly NZ men, targeted treatment needed”. This quotes a University of Auckland study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal which suggests the need for a campaign encouraging pensioners to seek help and a new face to front it, similar to the well-known John Kirwan advertisements.
Another recent publication  identified a rising suicide rate for very old men. Coronial Services data from 2011 to 2019 produced suicide rates by age groups per 100,000 as follows:
85 plus 27.9
These trends are not confined to New Zealand. In Australia, men 85 and older have the highest suicide rate of any age or gender group – 32.8 per 100,000 in 2017 as against 12.7 for the total population – and are six times more likely to end their own lives compared to women in the same age group. In the USA older European-descent men are again overrepresented among suicide deaths.
Why is this? There are various suggestions. In all countries, bereavement, loneliness, dementia, mental and physical illness may be experienced in advanced age. But there may also be cultural and psychological influences, such as limitations brought on by age and threats to masculinity.
Economic deprivation is more likely to affect older women, but older men are not immune from poverty. Then there are questions about the definition of suicide and the reporting of such deaths. All these factors need to be examined when considering initiatives for suicide prevention aimed at older men.
If you, or anyone you know needs support with mental health or depression please call any of these help lines:
 Keren Skegg & Brian Cox (1991) Suicide in New Zealand 1957–1986: The Influence of Age, Period and Birth-Cohort, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 25:2, 181-190
 Yoram Barak, Gary Cheung, Sarah Fortune and Paul Glue (2020) No country for older men: ageing male suicide in New Zealand. Australasian Psychiatry 1-3.
My father attempted suicide at age 89. He just couldn’t cope with the indignities and restrictions of old age, especially after he needed to go into care where he particularly missed having any intellectual stimulation. He was unsuccessful but was elated to find that his health condition was terminal and passed away peacefully a few months later.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. We are so glad to hear that your father passed peacefully.