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Elderly murder-suicide not unheard of

In an article written by Warren Wolfe in the Minneapolis St. Paul Star Tribune on March 27, Donna Cohen, a researcher and expert on murder-suicide among older couples, said what happened to Betty and Claire Erickson happens nationally more than 500 times a year.

Although each murder-suicide among older people is different, researchers quoted in the Star-Tribune say there is a typical pattern:

• The man kills the woman in their bedroom with a gun -- an act he has thought about for weeks or months.

• The woman has Alzheimer's disease or another illness, and the man is depressed, often exhausted, perhaps sick himself, and under strain as the primary caregiver.

• The woman is rarely a willing or knowing participant. She usually is killed in her sleep.

• The man almost always mistakenly believes he is acting with mercy, putting the woman out of her misery. Instead, he is ending his own misery.

• There may be warning signs that can help families prevent the tragedy.

David Erickson said his father probably "acted out of love" for the couple's three children, worried that they might have to care for their mother as he had for three years.

That notion is common in murder-suicides, said Cohen, who has testified before Congress, written extensively and helped train families and physicians. She is a professor of aging and mental health at the University of South Florida and heads its Violence and Injury Prevention Program.

How families can help

Within weeks before a murder-suicide, the man often has seen a physician -- sometimes escorting his wife, Cohen said. "Health professionals should screen patients routinely for depression. Medications and other interventions do work."

Sometimes families can prevent a murder-suicide if they recognize signs such as a health change in a long-married couple, more social isolation, exhaustion or talk of a move to a nursing home -- especially in cases where the husband has a dominant personality.

"Get Dad talking," Cohen said. "This can be frightening for families, but they can address [it] directly. Acknowledge the good work he has been doing, and ask him if he sometimes wishes his spouse or he were dead. You won't be putting a new idea in his head. It's OK to tell him those ideas are normal. They are."