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The Will to Die : Suicide Is a Tragic Secret for the Elderly, Especially for Men and Even More So in California

March 16, 1989|DAVID LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

Nobody really knows why Daniel Rosenthal gave up on life.

True, he was 88 years old, but he still taught a college course, seemed to be in good health and had an uncommon zest for living.

He spoke eight languages and had written books in many of them. After retiring in 1967 after 21 years at the UCLA School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, he continued to visit his professor emeritus office in Boelter Hall, and was there on March 6, three days before his death.

On Mondays for the last dozen years, the snowy-haired professor conducted courses for about 30 older people under the auspices of Santa Monica College's Emeritus College program. His most recent course: "The Aspects of Aging."

An Active Life

A widower, he maintained an active life, speaking regularly with his daughter, taking long walks, going out for dinner with friends.

Yet last Thursday, just before the sun rose on a springlike morning, Daniel Rosenthal, a diminutive man with a towering intellect, went to the balcony of his 12th-story apartment in West Los Angeles, took off his slippers, climbed a patio chair and plunged over the railing to his death.

He left a brief note to his daughter on the kitchen table. "Dearest," it read in part, ". . . can no longer bear the idea of becoming a useless vegetable. (signed) Daniel."

Rosenthal's case is tragically typical. The suicide rates among older males are strikingly high, increasing steadily after age 65. Nationally, there are 35.5 reported suicides for every 100,000 males from 65 to 74 years old, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The rate soars to 54.8 from ages 75 to 84, and to 61.6 for those 85 and older.

In California, the rates are higher still. According to the California Department of Health Services, the rate of suicide per 100,000 males ages 85 and older is 105.5.

Authorities believe that suicide among the elderly, especially males, takes place much more than statistics show. One major reason is that, because death among the old is an expected happening, often it isn't recorded as anything other than a natural occurrence.

"Although there is little clear evidence, we feel that the suicide rate among the elderly may be hidden to a great extent," said Dr. Dan Blazer, professor of psychiatry at Duke University and a nationally recognized authority on suicide in later life. "Older persons, for instance, can take their own lives in such little-detectable ways as neglecting to take essential medicine."

When a younger person dies unexpectedly, there is more likelihood of an autopsy and investigation, Blazer said. "When a senior dies, it may have actually been a suicide, but authorities often will write it off as a heart attack or simply death from old age."

An article in Newslink, the publication of the Denver-based American Assn. of Suicidology, noted that "the tremendous focus on the young (and suicides) has led us to largely ignore an even higher risk group. Suicide among the elderly has been neglected despite the increasing numbers and proportions of the old in our population."

The high rate of suicide among older males, Blazer said, tends to drive up the statistics for the elderly as a whole. In all age groups, in fact, far fewer women take their own lives.

The reason? Experts say women cope better with the onset of old age and, if necessary, with having to be by themselves.

"Older males seem to have more difficulty in coping with living alone," Blazer explained. "They may have difficulty in caring for themselves, and probably don't recognize health problems as well as females. They don't go to doctors as often as women."

Also, he said, "men tend to have fewer affiliative relationships, fewer friends. Women, if they are feeling depressed, often have human resources at their command."

Blazer mentioned another aspect, what he called the cohort effect. "In separate years, people who are, say, age 65, may have different suicide rates. This is because of generational differences. They may have, because of when they were born, gone through entirely distinct life experiences."

Thinking had been Daniel Rosenthal's life. Born in Poland, he earned a doctorate in engineering from the Free University of Brussels, and taught there before fleeing with his wife, Anna, only days before the Nazis arrived.

The couple spent time in France, Morocco and Portugal, and finally settled in the United States. Rosenthal taught four years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining UCLA.

In 1970, Rosenthal's wife died after a lingering illness, apparently Alzheimer's disease. Friends theorized that perhaps he grew afraid of becoming a vegetable, a burden on others.

Three years ago, he commented to a visitor: "As I grew older, I never gave much thought to how much longer I would last. But of one thing I was certain: If I allowed my brain to become fallow, I would become a vegetable."

Above-Average Intelligence

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