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

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

Yet in the last few years, if anyone doubted that Rosenthal still had above-average mental faculties, that person would only have had to listen to his classroom handling of topics such as "Computer: Friend or Foe," or "The East and West in Science."

Some of the course papers the professor handed out (he had taught himself to use a word processor), complete with footnotes, would have done a Ph.D. thesis proud, such as his tracing of how mankind throughout history has dealt with the relationship between mind and body.

At one time his course was titled: "Your Brain: Use It or Lose It."

"You live as long as you learn!" he once emphasized to a visitor in his Chaucer-and-Dante-lined apartment.

But if Rosenthal felt he was losing ground mentally or physically, he didn't let on. In the week before his death, except for a touch of the flu, he seemed to be fine.

"Daniel called me a few days before the Monday class and asked me to lead it," said one of his students, 75-year-old Harry Block. "He said he had the flu."

George Sines, a UCLA professor of engineering and a colleague of Rosenthal's for 42 years, said his wife talked with the octogenarian several days later. "Although Daniel was slightly in doubt as to whether he would be able to make it," Sines said, "he agreed to go out with my wife and I on Saturday night for dinner."

Lucy Dale, Rosenthal's adopted daughter, said she checked up on him by phone twice last Wednesday, the day before his death. "I would have gone over," the daughter recalled, "but I also had the flu, and I didn't want his to get worse. He said nothing unusual."

An elderly neighbor in the apartment complex said he was taking a stroll on the grounds about 4 p.m. Wednesday and saw his friend Rosenthal out for a walk. "I talked with him a few hours later on the phone and invited him over for dinner Thursday night," said the neighbor, who also lives alone. "He said he would call me in the morning and let me know for sure. He said nothing out of the ordinary."

Apparently, few elderly suicide victims of either sex seek help before deciding on the most drastic of steps. "Only about 5% of the approximately 1,200 calls we get monthly are from people 65 or older," said Norman L. Farberow, co-founder of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center.

"The older don't reach out as much as we would like them to," Farberow said. "They relate more to somebody reaching out to them than vice versa."

The end-it-all danger among the elderly is greater in an urban environment such as Los Angeles, Farberow said. "In a rural or small-town setting, they would probably have more contacts with neighbors, friends and relatives. Here they may feel more isolated. Sometimes nobody perhaps even knows if they are sick, except when they don't show up to pay the rent."

Farberow remembered one case of an older woman whose son had moved out of Los Angeles for business reasons, leaving her alone. "She became depressed, and was considering suicide. She had a feeling of aloneness and of abandonment."

The Samaritans, a Boston-based suicide prevention group, has said that whereas some think the main cause of life-taking among the elderly is terminal illness, more likely the reason is recognized and untreated depression.

And when oldsters make the grim decision, more often than not they mean it.

"With the young, a suicide attempt often can be a cry for help," said Blazer, of Duke University. "Younger people attempt it more. I listen to all such talk thoroughly, but when it is made by an older person I listen especially thoroughly and I take the matter very seriously.

"Older people tend not to complain that they intend suicide. A survey we conducted found that twice as many people ages 35 to 60 said they had thought about suicide as had people over 60.

"I think that for many of the elderly, suicide is a relatively impulsive act--they are feeling terrible and want to escape those feelings."

Is economic pressure, such as the high cost of living in cities such as Los Angeles, a factor in these tragedies among the old? "It could be," Blazer said, "but no one really knows. Studies have shown that black females have the lowest suicide risk, and the cost of living obviously affects them considerably."

What about geographical areas? Perhaps significantly, the suicide rate is highest in those regions (largely Sun Belt) that attract the greatest number of retired persons.

Suicide Prevention

Can anything be done to help to prevent suicides among the elderly, wherever they may live? Dr. Edwin S. Shneidman, professor of thanatology (the study of death and dying) at UCLA, said: "Probably the best thing is to understand the psychological needs of the elderly relating to loss and decrement.

"Be kind to and empathize with the elderly in your family. You will be there too one day--if you are lucky. If you address the psychological needs of the old, they are unlikely to commit suicide."

Farberow suggested being aware of the old-timers in one's neighborhood, especially those who have lost spouses and friends, and who may be feeling the effects of being alone.

Sometimes, though, it all may be in vain. With all too many of the elderly, there comes a time when the fatigue, the illness, the loneliness, the dependency, the loss of physical and mental abilities, the depression or the loss of a sense of meaningful existence, becomes overwhelming.

Norman Cousins said: "Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live."

In the week since Daniel Rosenthal's death, the dominant question among those who knew him is, "Why?"

A Los Angeles County Coroner's autopsy found no evidence that Rosenthal suffered from any serious illness.

His daughter said he gave no indication of being despondent.

His grandson, George Dale, reflected that "to me it is shocking and sad, but it is something that is very much in line with his character."

A spokesperson at Santa Monica College observed of the popular educator: "He was in control of his life, right to the end."

Harry Block, who led the Emeritus College class on March 6 at the request of the professor, theorized:

"All that some of us can figure out is that perhaps he felt he was slipping, and he didn't want to retrogress. He was aware of what he was capable of, and he didn't want to lose it. A man that proud of his intellect--maybe he saw signs he might be a victim of Alzheimer's, and that would have been such an indignity to him."

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