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WHEN THE CAREGIVER TURNS KILLER

Posted by: Laurence Harmon on 3/31/2009

 

Hudson is where Claire and Betty Erickson went to high school, married, raised their four children, and prospered over the years. Claire was the founder of the Erickson Oil/Freedom convenience store chain. His 800 employees work in stations sprinkled around small towns from Wisconsin to South Dakota

Perched atop a bluff overlooking the sparkling St. Croix, 1003 Crest View Drive in Hudson is where Claire and Betty lived for 51 years and where they raised their four children. 
 
1003 Crest View Drive also is where Claire spent nearly a thousand days and nights caring tenderly for Betty, gradually descending into the misty gloom of Alzheimer’s, and where, sometime during the night of March 24th, Claire shot Betty to death and turned the gun on himself. 
 
Although their children and grandchildren were aware that they had become less active in recent months, the Ericksons celebrated their 60th anniversary with them in Florida on March 18th. During one of their talks, Claire told his son, David, that he'd been experiencing vertigo for several weeks, and that he was "tired" and "weary." What worried David was something else Claire told him:   "You know, if anything ever happens to me, your mother will have to go into a home, because she cannot take care of herself."
 
David, concerned, convinced Claire to let him drive them back to Wisconsin. They started out early on the 24th, and arrived in Hudson mid-evening. The following morning, at about 10:30, their daughter and her husband found Claire and Betty lying in bed, dressed in their pajamas, looking "peaceful." 
 
An act of love?  Compassion? Or something worse, much worse? "I have no doubt what he did was out of love for the three of us siblings," said David Erickson. "I think he was just tired and knew her situation wasn't going to get any better."
 
Experts disagree. Doctor Donna Cohen, a professor in the Department of Aging and Mental Health Disparities at the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, established the Aging Studies program at the University of South Florida. Noting that caregiving is "almost impossible," Cohen believes that caregiver stress increases the risk of homicide/suicide. "Murder-suicide," she argues, "Almost always is not an act of love. It's an act of desperation." Although some equate murder-suicide with assisted suicide, Cohen disagrees. "It usually is not the same. This is suicide and murder.''
 
Warning signs.  Claire Erickson's actions resembled a blueprint that is common in murder-suicides among the elderly. As Dr. Cohen observes, "Some older men try so hard to hold their heads high, to not ask for help with the stress of caregiving,  They cope as best they can with a depression they feel but can't acknowledge."
 
According to researchers, although each murder-suicide involving older people is unique, there are certain common elements. A recent study by the ViolencePolicyCenter (http://www.vpc.org/studies/amroul2008.pdf) found that the percentage of murder-suicides involving a firearm is approximately 90 percent; those in which the killers were male, 95 percent; and those involving intimate partners that also occurred in the home, approximately 75 percent each.
 
To summarize, the components of a murder-suicide are the following:
  • The murderer is male;
  • He uses a gun to commit the crime;
  • He and his victim are intimate partners, often a husband and his wife; and
  • He commits his crime at home.
The VPC study determined that "unique factors may drive murder-suicide among the elderly," observing that older people rarely commit suicide, and do so primarily when the declining health of the victim, the murderer, or both is present.
 
The study cited a Kansas murder-suicide case that is eerily similar to the Ericksons'. The 89-year old husband shot his 88-year old wife while she was lying in their bed; he was found lying next to her with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Neighbors told police that the wife had recently been hospitalized and was very ill.
 
After analyzing the facts and circumstances of hundreds of these cases, researchers have concluded that there is a pattern that is typical in virtually all murder-suicide cases involving the elderly:   
  • The man kills the woman in their bedroom with a gun, something he has planned for weeks and perhaps for months. This means that the act is premeditated, the essential element that the criminal law requires for a conviction of first-degree murder;
  • The woman has Alzheimer's disease or a related illness. The man, who is the primary caregiver, is depressed, perhaps ill, definitely exhausted and extremely stressed; 
  • The woman is rarely a willing or knowing participant, and is usually killed in her sleep; and
  • The man almost always mistakenly believes that his act is a merciful one, that he is putting the woman out of her misery. In fact, however, he is merely bringing an end to his own.
Prevention. Looking back, which we humans can do with perfect vision, perfect clarity, and perfect perception, there may have been multiple opportunities to prevent the horrific Erickson deaths. 
  
Experts emphasize the importance of recognizing such omens as a health change in an elderly, long- and happily-married couple. In one study she conducted in Florida, Cohen discovered that fully two-thirds of the men who committed murder-suicide had visited their doctors less than three weeks before the act; none, however, had been treated for depression.
 
A single 10-minute doctor visit is unlikely to reveal an elderly man's depression, however. Patrick Arbore, Director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention at the Goldman Institute on Aging, says, "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. Sometimes comments like 'I'm going to kill myself' are so provocative that we can't believe it and let it go by."
 
Other factors, such as changes in eating or sleeping, talk about feeling helpless or hopeless, a loss of interest in normal activities--these are signs of depression, according to Dr. Cohen, as is an elderly husband's remark about the need for nursing home care for his wife "should anything happen to me." 
 
Experts agree that suspicions demand aggressive action. Cohen, for example, urges an adult child to question her father directly: "Have you ever thought about suicide? Have you thought about killing someone else and then killing yourself?" If the answer is yes--or not an unqualified no--the follow-up question should be about his plans. The more detailed they are, the more likely they will occur.
 
A reasonable concern about the possibility of murder-suicide should cause an immediate intervention--a call to a suicide crisis center or hotline, an intensive search for weapons in the house, and perhaps an ambulance trip to a medical emergency room or a psychiatric center,
 
What's the lesson? Cohen says that "The lesson is to be aware, take the signs seriously, start talking and try to get help. You still may fail, but you will never regret trying."
 
 
 
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5 Comments

    • Apr 05 2009, 7:07 PM Nicolette Toussaint
    • It is unfortunately all too easy for the elderly caregiver to become isolated. Sometimes, there are no children (adult children), just an isolated couple cut adrift from community. This is a very good reason for raising consciousness about reaching out and getting the caregiver - a neighbor perhaps - a break. Inviting them to attend an event, or go to church. Thanks for posting this and raising consciousness about it.

    • Apr 02 2009, 1:40 AM Catrina Stark
    • We need to educate people about compassion fatigue. This is one of the reasons home care services are so valuable.

    • Mar 31 2009, 11:38 AM Gary Kendrick
    • Laurence, What a tragic story. It's always hard to look back and wonder what we could have done differently. Suicides are especially hard because it makes those near and dear to the victim question themselves on what signs we didn't notice. We never know what we would do if we were in the same situation. It's a reminder to us all to not only take care of the one needing care but also to take care of the caregiver. Gary South Sound Elder Services

    • Mar 31 2009, 5:12 PM Murphy Ortiz
    • Very good point you make Laurence. At our home care agency, we have been focusing our efforts on educating the adult children of the elderly by offering educational materials about strategies for obtaining home care, and mistakes to avoid when selecting home care, as well as practical info on making home care affordable. Many people know nothing about the home care industry until they are in immediate need of help-often after one of their elderly parents have sustained an injury in the home. If you are responsible for your aging parents, the time to learn about available services is NOW, not after they get hurt or sick. www.familychoicecares.com

    • May 18 2009, 2:39 PM Beverly Parsons, LGSW
    • Laurence - thank you for posting this story. I'm wondering how much of this tragedy was a result of loneliness on the part of the caregiver. And, in fact, on the part of elders who decide to end their lives. Read a lengthy article in the NY Times recently on same http://tr.im/lGsB Center for Aging Families, LLC, is finding solutions to prevent caregiver burnout and providing support for aging families. Please visit blog for discussions. http://tr.im/lG1f

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