CUMBERLAND — At 5:20 on March 31, just after finishing Easter Sunday dinner, 73-year-old Roland Bouvier and his wife of 49 years, 70-year-old Maria, walked quietly into the bedroom of their Cumberland condominium on Nate Whipple Highway.
While the couple's 40-year-old daughter and three grandchildren were in another room, Bouvier took a .32-caliber handgun, shot his wife twice in the torso and then turned the gun on himself.
It was Cumberland’s first murder and second murder-suicide in four years.
For the 14 years the Bouviers lived in Victorian Court, a quiet 28-unit condominium complex tucked away off busy Nate Whipple Highway, they were known within the development for being the kind of neighbors everyone wants: quite, friendly and helpful.
“You couldn’t ask for better neighbors,” says John Scott, president of the Victorian Court Condominium Association.
But what many of those same neighbors may not have known was that the Bouviers had been suffering from severe health problems in recent years. Roland Bouvier was living with excruciating and debilitating pain from a recent back surgery, while his wife was suffering from early stages of Alzheimer's disease, an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually, even the ability to carry out the simplest of tasks.
When police officers recovered the gun at the scene last Sunday, they also found a note that said: “No more pills, no more pain."
Mental health experts say that kind of desperate act isn’t uncommon and that incidents of murder-suicide are occurring with alarming frequency among the elderly.
Elderly Suicide Rate Climbing
Nationally, suicide rates among adults over age 60, in general, are climbing, according to mental health and suicide prevention groups. Suicide rates among 65- to 74-year-olds jumped from 12.6 to 13.9 per 100,000 in that age group between 2007 and 2008, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. That was the biggest one-year increase among all age groups.
According to the San Francisco-based Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services, 84.6 percent of elderly suicides are male and that the rate of male suicides in late life was 7.7 times greater than female suicides. For approximately 60 percent of all cases of suicide and 83 percent of elderly suicides, major depression plays a pivotal role in facilitating suicide.
Elderly suicide risk factors include death of a loved one, physical illness or un-controllable pain, perceived poor health, social isolation and loneliness and changes in social roles.
As for murder-suicides, experts say the majority of murder-suicides among older couples are not suicide pacts. Often, it’s men who are thrust into the unfamiliar role of caregiver. They may suffer from undiagnosed clinical depression. And if they learn their own health problems put them at risk of dying before their spouses, they may believe that no one else can take care of their wives as well as they can.
Kate Noveau, director of social services at Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island in Pawtucket, says the most common cause for elderly suicide, as for all suicides, is untreated depression, and that about one third of seniors who are 65 or older experience depression. She says older adults often face a multitude of changes and stresses in relation to the aging process, including health concerns, physical limitations, financial problems, and loss of loved ones. These changes may trigger depression, grief, a sense of isolation, or thoughts of suicide.
“It can be very frustrating when a person does not have any sense of self determination and feels they do not have any control over their lives,” Noveau says.
Noveau says adult children need to be aware of the warning signs that could indicate serious risk, including things like an elder transferring title of property and giving away possessions to other family members or becoming more socially isolated, and withdrawing from family, friends and social activities.
“Not having any future orientation is another warning sign,” she says.
Mary Lou Moran, director of the Leon Mathieu Senior Center in Pawtucket, says older people are at risk for depression, are underserved by the mental health profession, and have the highest rates of suicide in the country.
“Unfortunately, by the time you get to that point, it’s like peeling back the layers of an onion and you can see all kinds of issues that might have led up to it, including chronic illness and pain, a spouse passing away or loss of independence,” she says.
Moran says depression often responds to treatment, and that the outcome is usually better for elderly people who have access to social services, family, and friends who can help the them stay active and engaged.
At the Leon Mathieu Senior Center, the mission is to identify Pawtucket's older adults and provide them with a safe, supportive and nurturing environment where they can access information about resources, programs and services available on the local, state and federal levels. The center also acts as an advocate for the rights and well being of older adults on a wide variety of issues.
“We’re trying to promote healthy aging from both a physical and emotional perspective and we would encourage everyone to search out the wide range of social services for seniors that are available in their communities,” Moran says.
Linda Thibault, a senior wellness manager at Senior Services, Inc. in Woonsocket, says the changes that often come in later life - retirement, the death of loved ones, increased isolation, medical problems - can lead to depression or worse.
“We all go through loss and in some cases it can lead to social isolation and can contribute to loneliness and depression,” she says. “I’ve had so many people who have experienced this tell me how grateful they are to have Senior Services, Inc.”
Senior Services, Inc. has provided services to the elderly and handicapped residents of Northern Rhode Island since 1975. The agency serves hot, nutritionally balanced lunches five days a week in its function as the nutrition program for the area and also manages an adult day care program in addition to activities, entertainment, computer classes, and Alzheimer's disease support groups.
“One of our strategies is to provide a total wellness program. We have the exercise and physical aspect of wellness down pat and now we’re looking to provide the emotional, social and spiritual part,” says Thibault who will help coordinate a new upcoming six-week interactive and support program for seniors that focuses on those areas.
Thibault knows first hand the pain of losing a loved one in a murder-suicide. In 2008, her sister, Beatrice Langelier, 60, died of a gunshot wound to the head - shot by her husband who then killed himself by igniting cylinders containing flammable propane gas placed throughout their home on Nate Whipple Highway.
The killing was the town's first homicide in 15 years.
“I felt disbelief and anger and it was especially hard on my mother at the time,” Thibault says. “Feelings of loss can really weigh heavy on folks. Some people can handle it better than others, but it can be especially difficult for the elderly who may be experiencing other things like health problems or a recent bereavement.”
In the case of Roland and Maria Bouiver, who had been married for 49 years, both had severe health issues and had indicated they could not go on any further, according to family members and police.
“It’s hard to believe that something like this can happen so close to home,” said John Scott, their neighbor. “They were such super nice people. They weren’t just neighbors. They were friends.”