Couple's story turns tragic

October 09, 2000

Couple's story turns tragic


In July, police found the bodies of an elderly Hagerstown couple in a car parked with the engine running in a remote part of Washington County.

Fred Stouffer had apparently used exhaust fumes to kill himself and Aileen, his wife of 56 years, who suffered from advanced Alzheimer's disease. Police ruled their deaths a murder-suicide.

Those closest to the couple were shocked.

Murder-suicides involving older couples are complex tragedies that have a traumatic impact on surviving family members, friends and neighbors, a national geriatric issues expert said.

Such crimes are acts not of love or altruism, but of desperation, said Donna Cohen, professor in the Department of Aging and Mental Health at the University of South Florida.


"It's not a geriatric Romeo and Juliet," Cohen recently said during a Hagerstown convention on behavioral changes.

Cohen studied murder-suicides that occurred over 11 years 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.

Each year, about 500 elderly murder-suicides occur, Cohen said.

She classified three types of homicide-suicide in older couples.

About 30 percent fall into the aggressive category, in which there is a history of marital problems or domestic violence, Cohen said.

About 20 percent are the symbiotic type of murder-suicide, and involve very old, ill and interdependent couples, Cohen said. The male usually has a dominant personality, and the wife is generally submissive, she said.

About half are dependent-protective murder-suicides, Cohen said. This type of murder-suicide often features long-married couples who are very dependent upon one another. The man often fears losing control due to changes in his or his wife's health, Cohen said.

A variation of the dependent-protective type is the care-giver-dependent murder-suicide, in which depression coupled with increasing isolation and multiple stresses produces helplessness in the male care-giver and triggers the act, Cohen said.

The Stouffer case would probably fall under this category, she said, based on her knowledge of the case.

Fred Stouffer's feeling of powerlessness in light of his wife's worsening condition likely caused a depression that "colored things dark," Cohen said.

"It's not love that drives the act," she said. "It's the helplessness and the hopelessness."

In all three types of murder-suicide, the husband perceives an unacceptable threat to the relationship. That threat could be an impending move to a nursing home or assisted care facility, a real or perceived change in health, or marital conflict or abuse, Cohen said.

The victim is not usually a willing or knowing participant, she said.

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