Alzheimer's destroys couple's lives

October 09, 2000

Alzheimer's destroys couple's lives


Fred and Aileen Stouffer wove a 56-year marriage with vivid threads of love and laughter.

"It was just always them two devoted to each other their whole lives. They did everything together," said Fred's sister, Barbara Ridenour.

In July, they died in each other's arms.

Police discovered Aileen, 75, and Fred, 76, in their Oldsmobile, parked behind a communications tower off Old Forge Road northeast of Hagerstown. The car was locked and the engine was running, according to a July 12 report from the Washington County Sheriff's Department.

A vacuum cleaner hose ran from the car's tailpipe to its right rear window. Towels secured the hose to the vehicle and prevented carbon monoxide fumes from escaping.


There were no indications of a struggle.

Fred was sitting upright in the driver's seat with his right arm wrapped around his wife, who lay on her left side against him. A wheelchair from the nursing home where Aileen had spent her last month was tucked in the back seat.

She had had Alzheimer's. The disease had destroyed her mind and shattered her husband's entire world.

It had happened over time and by degrees until the life the pair had built for more than half a century was gone.

Police ruled the Stouffers' deaths a murder-suicide.

Those who knew the couple say there is much more to this tragic ending to a lifelong love story than is conveyed in the cold vernacular of the law.

"Fred was a wonderful person. He was devoted to Aileen," said Hagerstown hardware store owner Paul Corderman, an employer and friend of Fred's for more than 20 years.

"The last thing this was is murder."

Searching for answers

The Stouffers' deaths left Corderman and other friends and family members shocked and bewildered.

"We're just searching for answers," said Ridenour, 62, who was practically raised by the older brother she called "Bud" and his wife.

"Everybody that knew Bud, they just couldn't believe he did this. Not him. I never would've thought he would have entertained the thought," she said.

In retrospect, though, Ridenour pinpointed "the breaking points," three mid-June incidents that may have driven her brother to his fatal decision.

Within one week, Aileen had stopped eating and walking. Her husband saw those symptoms of advanced Alzheimer's disease as signs that she was losing her will to live, Ridenour said.

Several days later, Fred expressed to his sister his distress at the toll the disease was taking on the couple's finances.

"He worked hard his whole life, and then everything was taken from him," Ridenour said. "One day he just broke down and said, 'What is going to happen to me? What is going to happen to Aileen if something happens to me first?'"

A full life together

Fred and Aileen Stouffer were married on Dec. 11, 1944. They were together so long that no living relative remembers how they met, Ridenour said.

They both worked at Fairchild Industries in Hagerstown for many years, and Aileen continued to work at Fairchild after her husband was laid off. Fred then took a job at Corderman's Hardware, where he worked until the increasing demands of attending to his ill wife forced him to quit.

Fred was known as an all-around nice guy.

One Stouffer family friend, who asked to remain unnamed, said a greeting from Fred "made you feel like there were only good people in the world."

He loved children, toy trains and music boxes and magic, Ridenour said.

Paul Corderman's son, Robert, who also works at Corderman's Hardware, described Fred as an "awful nice fella," a "gentle, kind and carefree" man who enjoyed entertaining the store's employees and customers with magic tricks.

He had a reputation as a good magician. He made public performances and was a charter member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians' Local Ring 94 magic club. He stopped performing when his wife decided she would no longer serve as his assistant, Ridenour said.

The couple dined out often, traveled to Atlantic City and New York City to see shows, gardened, chatted with neighbors on their front porch, decked their East Irvin Avenue home and yard with holiday decorations, and doted on their dog, Rascal.

Fred dropped his wife off at the beauty parlor every Saturday before combing area flea markets.

Theirs was, Ridenour said, a full and prosperous life.

Disease strikes

Fred was fun and dependable, but it was Aileen who kept the couple's life in order, Ridenour said.

"Aileen did everything, and Bud was her baby. She picked out his clothes. She paid the bills."

When Alzheimer's disease struck, it twisted the roles they played in each other's lives.

Signs pointing to Alzheimer's began about four years ago, when Aileen kept forgetting what she wanted to say, Ridenour said.

"I remember her just putting her head in her hands and saying, 'Oh God, my mind. What is wrong with me?'" Ridenour said.

Eventually, she stopped answering the phone. Fred began speaking on Aileen's behalf, Ridenour said.

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