Conference addresses elderly murder-suicides

September 08, 2000

Conference addresses elderly murder-suicides

By ANDREW SCHOTZ / Staff Writer

What would prompt an elderly man to kill his suffering wife - then kill himself?

Too often, society assumes incorrectly that love spurred him on, a national geriatric issues expert said Friday at a convention on behavioral changes.

In reality, desperation, not adoration, usually reigns during cases of elderly murder-suicide, said Donna Cohen, a professor in the Department of Aging and Mental Health at the University of South Florida.

"It's not a geriatric Romeo and Juliet," she said.

Cohen was a keynote speaker at a two-day conference that concluded Friday at the Ramada Inn in Hagerstown. She also talked about elder abuse and mental health care.


Other speakers covered topics that included substance abuse, anxiety disorders and grief.

Elderly men may seem compassionate when they kill their wives who have been stricken with terminal diseases and are wracked with pain, Cohen said. What really drives some of these men, she said, is a fear they are losing control of their relationships.

Men - much more likely than women to be perpetrators - often then go on to kill themselves in what appears to be a prearranged act.

"They are not pacts," Cohen concluded. "These are not two people deciding that they want to die."

She used graphic crime-scene photos, newspaper articles and TV news clips to illustrate the gravity of a phenomenon regularly attributed to spousal reverence.

"Some real live human vignettes," she called them.

In one case, a 76-year-old man described watching his wife endure severe pain. He had been told twice by doctors that she had cancer and would not live long.

He told her he loved her, then shot her dead, he recalled in a national TV interview. When he turned the gun on himself, it misfired.

The man said his wife wanted to die, although she had never expressly asked him to kill her.

At the autopsy, the colon cancer she supposedly had was not evident.

Cohen said there are some cases where one spouse kills, or tries to kill, the other spouse because of a mistaken belief that the other spouse is terminally ill or in pain.

In some cases, the spouse is acting based on judgment distorted by depression. Other times, the spouse is truly suffering. The perception of the perpetrator - sometimes based on a confused mental state - is the key, Cohen said.

Cohen studied murder-suicides that occurred over an 11-year span in two parts of Florida. She said the rates were about twice as high for people 55 or older than for those below that age.

If a man kills his wife and doesn't kill himself - by plan or by accident - he shouldn't automatically face prison time, depending on his intent, Cohen said.

There have been similar conferences in Hagerstown over the last 10 years, said Dale Yoder, the director of the Western Maryland Intensive Behavior Management Program. This is the first time six local social service agencies have been involved.

About 400 people attended each day, Yoder said.

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