Murder-suicides among elderly appear to be more 'homicidal' than portrayed Men who kill wives, selves may be acting less out of love than illness

November 12, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- He's retired, usually well-educated, successful and says he loves his wife. He recently has suffered a physical setback, most frequently a stroke or a pulmonary problem such as emphysema.

This is a portrait of a killer: an older man who shoots his ailing wife and then takes his own life.

Researchers have known that men almost exclusively were the ones pulling the trigger in geriatric murder-suicide. But startling new information being uncovered by a research team at the University of South Florida in Tampa shows these tragedies are not the unpreventable Romeo and Juliet love pacts they often are portrayed to be.

In half of the cases studied, the female victims had defensive wounds, indicating that they may have tried to fend off their mates. Rarely were suicide notes found from the wife or with her signature. And while up to one-fourth of male perpetrators talked of suicide before acting, the women rarely did.

"We're finding that homicide-suicides are much more homicidal than we had originally thought," said Donna Cohen, chair of the university's Department of Aging and Mental Health.

Cohen, the lead psychologist on the study, is presenting initial findings this week at the annual conference of the Gerontological Society of America in Cincinnati.

Although the current study looked at cases from 1988 through 1994, Cohen continues to collect newspaper articles for future investigation.

One from 1996 tells of an elderly man who visited his wife every day in a St. Petersburg nursing home. One morning, he pushed her in her wheelchair to the parking lot, pulled a shotgun out of his car and shot her in the head at close range. Then he turned the gun on himself.

"Was this an act of love?" Cohen said. "No, I think it was an act of him being afraid and depressed and not knowing where to turn."

The Florida homicide-suicide study marks the first time researchers have tried to quantify these incidents, which are not identified in state crime statistics. Cohen said he thinks the study results indicate that at least 30 elderly murder-suicides happen in Florida each year -- a rate triple the national average and larger than expected.

"I don't think the government even knows this is going on in many instances," said E. Bentley Lipscomb, secretary of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. "Until we identify it, we can't take steps to preclude this loss of life."

Four medical examiners in seven west and south Florida counties, including Dade, isolated 171 cases to the study. Researchers, including some from the University of Miami, analyzed the examiner's reports, death certificates and other records. They tracked 160 factors, including drugs found in the blood stream during autopsy, personal histories and demographics.

Cases were divided between older couples, where the homicidal mate was age 55 or older, and younger couples.

Among the results:

Homicide-suicides happen among younger people for very different reasons than older people. Younger couples were far more likely to be unmarried, and have a history of physical and verbal violence. Older people were more likely to be married, and have a history of poor health.

Men who killed themselves and their wives were more likely to be suffering from a debilitating illness. Those who killed only themselves tended to have cancer or heart disease. Researches are uncertain why and want to do "psychological autopsies" with family members and doctors.

While financial stress often is cited as a possible motivator for older men, it did not appear as a factor in any of the study's geriatric cases.

One-fourth of Dade's older killers and 37 percent of west Florida's had said they were depressed, double to triple the rate among younger men. Yet only one of the senior suicides had anti-depressants in his bloodstream, indicating that the depression had gone untreated.

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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