Still ready to give up on life? A longitudinal phenomenological study into wishes to die among older adults

Els J. van Wijngaarden, M. Merzel, Vera van den Berg, M. Zomers, I. Hartog, Carlo J. W. Leget

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Rationale: There is a paucity of empirical studies exploring wishes to die (WTD) in older adults without a life-threatening disease or psychiatric disorder, especially on how these WTD evolve over time. Objective: This study aims to deepen our understanding of living with a WTD by elucidating multifaceted trajectories of death wishes in older adults without a life-threatening disease or psychiatric disorder. Methods: Interviews were conducted between 2013 and 2019 with Dutch men and women aged 70 and older who expressed a WTD (preferably at a self-chosen moment). Using a phenomenological, longitudinal analysis approach, 35 serial interviews were analyzed. Results: This resulted in four thematic meanings following four trajectories, namely: 1) a realized WTD, facing the ultimate decision with both freedom and a sense of fate; 2) an intensifying WTD, reaching a deadlock; 3) a diminishing WTD, experiencing tentative space for new possibilities; and 4) a vanishing WTD, being surprised by an unexpected turn. In the cases examined, the individuals' WTD was characterized by ambivalence and subject to change over time. Fluctuating, often asynchronous patterns of physical, social, psychological, and existential distress were lived intertwined. The WTD should thus be understood as dynamic and unpredictable, often impacted by external circumstances. Conclusions: An important clinically relevant finding is that even persons with a pronounced WTD can experience openness to new possibilities, leading to a diminished or vanished WTD and/or desire to act on their WTD. Often such changes were related to (re-)establishment of connections with other people and/or society or with themselves. Since most research in this area is cross-sectional, the current longitudinal findings of this study are unique in providing insight into changes over time, thus contributing to the fields of death and suicide studies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-9
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021


  • (Rational) suicide
  • Ambivalence
  • Death wishes (WTD)
  • Lived experience
  • Old age
  • Phenomenological analysis
  • Self-chosen death
  • The Netherlands

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