Saturday, June 14, 2008

Murder-suicides among the elderly (by Suzie)


          A newspaper reports that Robert Benjo, 82, shot his wife, Peggy, 76, in Deltona, Fla., as she slept. Their doctor said the husband did it so that she would no longer suffer from cancer and Alzheimer’s. The doctor, the public defender and the family called it a mercy killing.
In December 2000, another Deltona man, Leo Visco, 81, was arrested when he shot his wife, Eva, in what was termed a "mercy killing." Although he was charged with first-degree murder after the homicide, he subsequently got a five-year suspended prison sentence and was placed on probation for 10 years.
          Without more facts, I can’t speak to these cases. But I do want thorough investigations when elderly men kill ailing wives.
         Donna Cohen, a professor at the Florida Mental Health Institute in Tampa, has researched murder and suicide in the elderly. From an article on her research:
           Of the hundreds of homicide-suicide deaths in the US each year, the rate amongst over 55s is twice that of under 55s. Homicide-suicides now account for about three per cent of all suicides, and about 12 per cent of homicides in the older population.
         “One of our most distressing findings is evidence that older women who are killed are not knowing or willing participants,” says Dr. Cohen. “Often they are killed in their sleep or shot in the back of the head or chest.”
           Her research indicates that about a third of elder homicide-suicides occur in a context of domestic violence, an ugly contrast to the Norman Rockwell image of loving clan matriarch and patriarch.
            Most elder homicide-suicides, however, have more to do with poor health. Often one or both partners are in failing health, and typically the husband is supporting a spouse who is chronically ill.
           “You’ve got men in long-lived marriages who have typically exercised a certain amount of control and they’re having to care for their wives,” says Dr. Cohen. “They’re very task oriented, and this inability to help the wife becomes an interpretation of failure.
            "A woman who is providing care is more apt to respond emotionally. They talk about it, share those kinds of thoughts.”
         I understand the frustrations of caregiving. I helped care for a father with Alzheimer’s and other illnesses while I underwent cancer treatment. I think assisted suicide should be legal, but we must be very, very, very careful.
          If there’s nothing in writing, it’s hard to interpret what someone might have wanted. People who are in pain or are distraught about their physical condition may talk about dying or say they don’t want to live in a certain fashion. But they would not necessarily answer “yes” if asked, “Would you like me to shoot you in your sleep?”
          Let me put this another way: Not everyone who talks about suicide, not everyone who says they hate their life, actually wants to die. For some, it’s another way of saying, “Please do something to help me.” When I came out of anesthesia after my first major operation, I was yelling, “Kill me! Kill me!” What I really meant was, “Quick, inject me with more painkiller!”
           Some people say they wouldn’t want to live with a chronic illness or disability, but after they become ill or disabled, they find ways to enjoy life.
          A brain tumor left my mother with dementia, but she was relatively happy. Her younger self wouldn’t have wanted to live like that. But her older, demented self? She liked the tiny blue flowers that grew by the lake, the dog that curled next to her as she slept, and a bagel with coffee.