Murder-suicides in Elderly Rise
Husbands commit most murder-suicides -- without wives' consent.
One Sunday morning, Charlie Woods returned home from church to find two
police officers waiting at his door. First the officers asked if he had any
health problems. Then they told him both his parents were dead. His father had
killed his mother, firing six bullets through the bedroom door of their
Tallahassee home. Then the 59-year-old man turned the gun on himself.
Since 1988, when Woods' parents died, the homicide-suicide rate among
couples 55 and older in Florida has increased about tenfold, according to Donna
Cohen, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of
South Florida's department of aging and mental health.
Though statistics for the entire nation are not available, Cohen believes
the Florida numbers are representative of the rest of the country. She
estimates that nearly 20 older Americans die each week in
These are not couples who, in the sunset of their years, romantically choose
oblivion together. Cohen has found that the typical homicide-suicide case
involves a depressed, controlling husband who shoots his ill wife. "These
are acts of depression and desperation,"
she says. "The wife does not want to die and is often shot in her sleep. If
she was awake at the time, there are usually signs that she tried to defend
"There's nothing loving about murdering another person," adds Woods,
whose 53-year-old mother was not ill and did not want to die.
Undiagnosed and Untreated Depression
It's not clear why more and more elderly men -- the murderers are almost all
men -- are depressed enough to kill themselves and their wives. One reason may
be loneliness, says Patrick Arbore, Director of the Center for Elderly Suicide
Prevention at the Goldman Institute on Aging. He points out that more and more
seniors live isolated from their friends and families.
In one study of an area in Florida, Cohen found that two-thirds of the men
who killed their wives and themselves had visited their doctors within three
weeks before committing the deadly act. None, however, were being treated for
But a doctor is unlikely to diagnose a condition like depression in a
six-minute office visit, partly for lack of time and partly because older
people tend to put up a good front in the doctor's office.
"We can't really pass the buck to the physician here. It's important for
adult children and members of the community to pay attention and to listen --
to really listen -- to what these older people are saying," says Arbore.
"Sometimes comments like 'I'm going to kill myself' are so provocative that
we can't believe it and let it go by."
Changes in eating or sleeping, talk of feeling helpless or hopeless, loss of
interest in activities, or giving things away are all signs of depression. In
addition, Cohen says adult children should be aware that the following
situations are risk factors for homicide-suicide:
- The couple has been married a long time and the husband has a dominant
- The husband is a caregiver and the wife has Alzheimer's disease or a similar
- One or both have multiple medical problems, and the health status of one is
- A move to a nursing home or assisted living facility is
pending or under discussion.
- The couple is becoming more socially isolated, withdrawing from family,
friends, and social activities.
- The couple has been arguing or there is talk of divorce.