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Grappling with the emotional toll of caring for a spouse in failing health

Dora Comardo has lived at Laguna Woods Village for 25 years. But she’s never seen such traumatic events — a suicide and a murder-suicide involving elderly victims — occur so close together in the Orange County community of about 18,000.

Comardo, 86, understands the emotional toll of caring for a spouse in failing health. Over a period of six years, she watched her husband’s personality change from fun-loving to angry and confused. They had to stop dancing — their favorite social activity — because he would become jealous. Then, he started to wander away from home.

After Comardo placed him in a nursing home, she visited every day, even though he didn’t recognize her. Sometimes he wouldn’t even look at her. Over time, she started to resent him.

“His whole personality changed,” she said. “He wasn’t my husband anymore.”

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Her husband’s mental decline is why she can grasp what might drive an elderly spouse to shoot a partner or push people to suicide. Though her husband suffered from Alzheimer’s, Comardo always blamed him. She said she mourned his death through hatred.

“Who knows if I had a gun if I would have shot him or shot myself,” she said.

To those outside the elderly community, recent events present a grim glimpse into aging: A 77-year-old man fatally shot his wife of nearly 50 years Dec. 6 in the bathroom of their Laguna Woods home, then turned the gun on himself. An 84-year-old man leaped to his death from a nearby 14-story tower five days later.

And on Nov. 21, Roy Laird, 88, allegedly shot his wife of 70 years in a Seal Beach nursing home. Their daughter described the case as a mercy killing.

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But for many senior citizens like Comardo, death — regardless of how it comes — is something they accept. The general consensus among residents is generally apathetic.

Social workers are bracing for an “age tsunami” that began Jan. 1, when the oldest of the baby boomers turned 65.

Even the recent string of suicides and murders hasn’t seemed to merit much discussion, said Shirley Witt, the director of a senior center adjacent to Laguna Woods Village.

“I feel like it’s something the seniors don’t talk about,” she said. “It’s too close to home.”

In Orange County, 57 people over the age of 65 committed suicide in 2010. These suicides account for 23% of the county’s self-inflicted deaths for the year.

In 90% of suicide cases involving people over the age of 65, psychological autopsies show clinical depression, said Charles Reynolds, an aging expert with the University of Pittsburgh.

National suicide statistics show that the risk of suicide increases with age. The highest suicide rates are seen in older adults — particularly white males over the age of 85, Reynolds said. Mental health professionals said their biggest challenge is that many in this demographic don’t seek assistance.

All except for one of the 12 suicides of people over 85 were male, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

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Even after Clara Laird, 86, got sick and began showing signs of dementia, her husband, Roy Laird, stayed by her side. By the time Laird agreed to put his wife in a nursing facility less than a mile from their Leisure World home in Seal Beach, she could no longer walk, feed herself or recognize many of those closest to her. Roy Laird kept visiting — three times a day — up until that day in November when he allegedly killed her with a single gunshot wound to her head.

Prosecutors have charged Laird with murder. His arraignment is Monday.

The family released a statement describing “a pervasive and growing problem so many families confront every day.”

The statement described the hopelessness and despair: “For those watching a relative make this horrific descent, sometimes to subhuman levels, it’s far from an intellectual exercise; it is visceral and gut-wrenching and the source of continual sadness, concern and frustration.”

And sometimes, a person just wants to die.

“A small number of old people simply grow weary of life and feel they have no reason to continue to live, and so such people may well decide to take their own lives,” Reynolds said.

A review of five of the most recent closed cases in Orange County showed similar characteristics: The victims were terminally ill or suffering from some other debilitating illness. They were depressed. And in several incidents, they had mentioned suicide as an option.

According to police reports, a 68-year-old woman in white pajamas placed a bag over her head and shot herself. In Mission Viejo, an 80-year-old man overdosed on prescription medication and stabbed and cut himself multiple times. In the days leading up to his death, he had been depressed over losing his vision and had started having flashbacks from his days as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, the report said. An 84-year-old terminally ill man, who had always joked with friends about committing suicide to end the pain, finally did just that. One evening, dressed in a white terry cloth robe, he shot himself.

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Cheryl Wieland, the case management coordinator for Age Well Senior Services, a nonprofit that provides resources for older adults, said that with the more recent cases, the seniors she’s spoken with can sympathize.

“They nod their head and they say, ‘Yeah, I get it,’” she said. “There’s shock, but there’s also an underlying acknowledgement.”

Wieland said the most important thing for seniors is to stay engaged.

Ruth May, 77, a resident of Laguna Woods Village, said she exchanges phone calls each day with a friend — just to make sure they’re both still alive.

“If we really just looked to our neighbors more than we do, we could perhaps prevent things like this,” she said.

Dora Comardo, 86, said the senior center adjacent to her community has helped her immensely, especially after her husband passed away in 2000. She’s been going to the center for six years. Twice a week she plays poker.

Comardo tries to remember her husband before Alzheimer’s set in: their first kiss inside the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island, and him singing along to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

For two years after his death, Comardo resented her husband. How could he forget her — his wife of 56 years and mother of their two children?

Then, one day, she found a handwritten note on yellow legal paper in a desk at her home. It was dated 12 years before his death.

“To my wife Dora, with all my love,” he wrote. “So you see that if I die in the near future or later, thank you, thank you, thank you, for your love and the wonderful family, and your love.”

After that, the hatred was gone.

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com


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