Suicide prevention line reaches out to California seniors

March 18, 2012

The Friendship Line takes calls 24 hours a day, and keeps seniors connected with a willing ear and information about community services. Photo: splityarn/Flickr

By Callie Shanafelt

About a year ago 62-year-old Linda Asberry was on the verge of depression. She was struggling with her weight, arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, gout, injuries from two debilitating accidents and could barely make it up and down the 42 stairs to her apartment.

“I didn’t think that I had anything left to offer the world,” said Asberry.

Then people from the organization Meals on Wheels, which brought her food, asked if she’d like to talk with someone. She said yes, and got the number to the Institute on Aging’s Friendship Line.

Now, someone from the Friendship Line calls Asberry every night between 6 and 8.

The Friendship Line is a suicide prevention and mental health hotline for seniors. Last year, they got 18,000 calls. But they also make outgoing calls to remind elders to take their medication or to offer emotional support to people like Asberry. They made 40,000 of those calls in 2011.

The line was started by Patrick Arbore, in 1973, because he didn’t like the way seniors were treated.

“First and foremost, being in an ageist society, there’s nothing worse in this country to be than to be old,” said Arbore, who had been close to his maternal grandmother and felt sensitive to the needs of his elders.

Seniors often have a hard time getting mental health issues diagnosed. “We confuse depression with aging,” Arbore said.

Linda Asberry didn’t plan for getting old. She got an AA in psychology and sociology, studied early childhood education, and became a certified foster parent and kinship caregiver. She worked as a mail carrier until she was 45.

“I walked 8 miles a day and carrying that heavy mail,” Asberry said.

But then she had an accident that caused a spinal injury and she couldn’t do such physical labor. She opened a daycare, but had a hard time making a profit because the mothers of her grandchildren would drop them off and not pay for her services.

When she was 52, she fell into a swimming pool and couldn’t get up. With her spine re-injured, she had to stop working.

“I’ve never been in depression, but I started feeling down behind the pain,” Asberry said.

Her family kept calling asking for her help instead of offering her their support. She didn’t feel she had anyone to talk to. But then the people from the Friendship Line started calling. For the first time someone was asking how she was doing.

“I’ve never been a person to open up about me,” Asberry said.

Once she warmed to the idea, Asberry really started looking forward to the calls. She told her family not to disturb her between 6 and 8 p.m.

“They gave me the inner strength to have confidence in myself,” said Asberry. “I’d lost a lot of confidence.”

Now Asberry sees the plus side to aging.

“First of all you don’t have to worry about getting pregnant,” Asberry said. “That’s one good thing.”

Even though Asberry hasn’t been able to leave the house for seven months because of her health problems, she has found ways to stay engaged and enjoy life.

“Instead of dancing – I just listen to the music and watch the dancing,” Asberry said.

However, some who call or are referred to the Friendship Line face a deeper depression than the one Asberry experienced.

A person 65 years or older commits suicide in the United States approximately every hour and a half. The senior suicide rate is nearly double that of young people.

Moreover, one in four suicide attempts end in death for seniors. Among young people, one in 100 attempts lead to death.

Patrick Arbore lists several reasons seniors are committing suicide. First, he says, society begins to shun you as you age because you remind people of death.

Over his time with the friendship line, Arbore has become a senior himself, sporting grey streaks in his hair.

“People don’t see me,” Arbore said. “I’m invisible at 64.”

Arbore also says that people become depressed when dealing with their health issues, especially dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Alzheimer’s is going to be the disease of the baby boom generation,” said Arbore. “Half of the people in their 80s will have dementia, and the other half will be caring for them.”

He says the recession has caused a lot of anxiety as well. Many people call the friendship line and say ‘I’m worried that I’m going to run out of money before I die and then what’s going to become of me?’

But he says aging is hardest on men. White men over 80 are six times as likely to kill themselves than anyone else.

“White males take the fall from grace – this movement into their 80s – in a very negative way,” Arbore said.

He says white men feel they’ve lost the power, autonomy and validation they felt while working. As they become increasingly frail, they find it hard to ask for assistance.

“Older men feel a lot of shame and embarrassment when they need help,” Arbore said. “We have to teach men how to connect in an emotional way and get them to talk about it.”

That’s what he wants to accomplish with the Friendship Line. Their outgoing calls are meant to make people feel like they are not alone. They also help people stay independent by connecting them to needed services.

In the past, Arbore has had difficulty finding funding for the program, but they recently secured funding from the California Mental Health Services Authority to expand their visibility throughout the state.

Linda Asberry is helping with their visibility as well. She recommends the friendship line to her friends and shares the resources she learns about. Though she’s never had suicidal thoughts, she is grateful to the Friendship Line for helping her out of her depression.

“I feel free,” Asberry said. “No matter what pain I wake up with, I can deal with.”

NOTE: The Friendship Line is live 24-hours a day. The toll-free number is (800) 971-0016.

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