Hudson, Wisconsin (population 11,913) is a typical Midwestern river town. In particular, Hudson is safe: On a scale of one to 10, with one being the lowest, Hudson's violent crime rate is two.
Hudson is where Claire and Betty Erickson grew up, married, raised their children, and prospered for 51 joyous years. Claire was the founder of the extremely successful Freedom gas station/convenience store chain. Over the past three years, though, Claire had been caring tenderly for Betty as she gradually slipped into the misty gloom of Alzheimer's, and where Claire shot her to death and turned the gun on himself.
The Ericksons had celebrated their 60th anniversary with their family the previous week. Claire told his son, David, that he'd been experiencing vertigo, and that he was "tired" and "weary," and ominously because of her Alzheimer's, this: "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, drove his parents back to Wisconsin. The morning after their arrival, Claire and Betty were found lying in bed, dressed in their pajamas, looking "peaceful."
"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 Alzheimer's situation wasn't going to get any better."
Experts disagree. Doctor Donna Cohen, an aging studies professor, 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. This is suicide and murder.''
After analyzing the circumstances of hundreds of these cases, researchers have detected a typical pattern:
- The man kills the woman in their bedroom with a gun, something he has planned for weeks and perhaps longer.
- The woman has Alzheimer's disease or a related illness.The man, who's been the primary caregiver, is depressed, exhausted and stressed.
- The woman is usually killed in her sleep.
- The man believes that he is acting mercifully. In fact, he is merely bringing an end to his own misery.
There may have been multiple opportunities to prevent the horrific Erickson deaths. Such factors as changes in eating or sleeping and talk about feeling helpless or hopeless are signs of depression, according to Dr. Cohen.
Experts agree that suspicions demand aggressive action. Cohen, for example, urges an adult child to confront the father directly: "Have you ever thought about suicide?" If the answer is yes--or not an unqualified no-there should be immediate intervention--a call to a suicide crisis center or hotline, and perhaps an ambulance trip to a medical emergency room or a psychiatric center.
What's the lesson? Dr. Cohen says, "Be aware, take the signs seriously, start talking and try to get help. You still may fail, but you will never regret trying."
Laurence Harmon is the blogmaster for http://www.greatplacesinc.com, a website that delivers advice, insights and answers straight to the computer screens of the Baby Boom generation, the first to be tasked with caring for their aging--and often infirm--parents, pursuing their own active lifestyles and parenting their own children.