Monday, October 22, 2007

How Many Must Die Before We Realize the Elderly are Crying Out for Help?


Theirs were screams for help lost in a world too busy to hear. But, then, we don't listen to the old very well.

The whispers were there: The gardener so overwhelmed he could no longer care for his beloved flowers. The dying son so isolated he was convinced no one would look after his frail mother the way he did.

And, so, twice in the last two months, a desperate, elderly man has taken the life of an ailing loved one before turning the gun on himself.

"I'm not surprised and I think we're going to see much more of it," warns Monita Persaud, GTA consultant for the Ontario Strategy to Combat Elder Abuse. "I think it really needs some catastrophic pattern to happen before there's any kind of real investment and real concrete change."

How many are enough before we listen? How many must die before we see a pattern?

Apparently depressed over the failing health of his cancer-stricken wife, 83-year-old Ed Kling shot Jesse, 81, and then turned the gun on himself.
In a suicide pact last month, Percy Stein killed himself after shooting his wheelchair-bound mother Sarah Grupstein, 84, in the College Park apartment they shared. Stein, 66, was suffering from terminal stomach cancer and had been his mother's sole caregiver for decades.

"Where were the service providers?" Persaud demands. "Could they not see that we have seniors caring for seniors?" Often ill and frail themselves, more and more seniors are caring for loved ones at home with virtually no support from the outside world, she says. In a recent case, a woman, 72, who looks after her 93-year-old mother was given just two hours a week of community support.

"Two hours a week!" Persaud exclaims. "I was thinking, 'My Lord.' So what kind of options do people see when they're so burdened? When you don't get the support, when you yourself are isolated, you see (murder-suicide) as an option."

And it is only going to get worse, with so many aging baby boomers ahead. According to its most recent statistics, the Ontario Coroners' office says 146 Ontarians over the age of 65 took their lives in 2004, 103 of them men. But there were no available statistics as to how many were part of a murder-suicide scenario.

Despite these most recent two tragedies, there are no plans to call an inquest into elderly murder-suicides because there's no clear case the deaths were strictly the result of a system breakdown, says Dr. David Evans, Acting Regional Supervising Coroner for Central West Ontario.

"Especially with the elderly, there are multiple problems: Loss of a partner, medical problems, psychiatric problems, you have all three or four together. You can't always say, 'Well, they committed suicide because the system failed them.' What about the other reasons?"

There will be some who will look at these horrible family homicides and suggest the solution is making euthanasia easier.

In Lake County, Illinois, their elected coroner did just that this past summer by musing in his blog that these so-called mercy killings should be a legal choice.

"Murder-suicide of an elderly couple, is that such a bad way to go?" asked Coroner Richard Keller, following a high profile case in his area. "It is difficult to grow old and particularly growing old into worsening health. It is incredibly difficult to watch a loved one deteriorate into worsening health. It is difficult to watch a loved one decline mentally (from a medical or a neurologic condition) to a point that they are no longer who they used to be.

"Should it be a choice?" 'NOT ACTS OF LOVE'

But instead of romanticizing these kind of deaths, we would do better to heed two Florida researchers who argue we should be doing more to help these elderly caregivers who are often too overwhelmed and depressed to see any other answer.

"We have found these homicide-suicides are not mercy killings, altruistic events or suicide pacts," wrote Drs. Julie E. Malphurs and Donna Cohen in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. "They are not acts of love or adoration, and they are not compassionate homicides. They are acts of desperation and depression ..."

So how many are enough before we listen? How many must die before we see a pattern?

Surely, four lost lives in two months will do.

"Hopefully, it's the beginning of people really recognizing the gaping hole that exists out there for seniors," Persaud says.

And time for their cries for help to be heard.

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