No Exit

In South Florida the new killing fields are filled with sick, depressed senior citizens who make self-inflicted death their final ally

Guns were used in about half of the 1999 elderly suicides in Broward. Like Julian, many victims shot themselves in their houses, terrifying their spouses. On March 2, for instance, Edward Safer, age 85, suddenly took his wife's hand and kissed it and told her he loved her. At the same time, his nurse saw a 9 mm pistol in his hand and lunged for it. Safer shoved his wife away, forcing the nurse to catch her. Safer then backed into a walk-in closet of his Tamarac home, put the gun in his mouth, and ended his life. Safer was chronically ill at the time with heart problems and emphysema.

Megan Ingle says she's still reliving the nightmare of May 18, when she woke up to the smell of gunpowder after she and her husband, Roy, had gone to bed in their Miramar home. When she turned on the light, she saw a puddle of blood next to her husband's lifeless body beside her in the bed. When she reached for him, she knocked the gun to the floor. Her husband had a serious heart condition that required quadruple bypass surgery in 1991, and she says he'd developed an addiction to pain medicine. Ingle says she will never completely recover from the shock of that night. "I keep having a replay of finding Roy and of him lying there and me not being able to do anything. I think that will be with me to the end of my days."

Gun deaths aren't always instantaneous, as in the case of Sol Halpern, age 84, a retired attorney living in a condominium in Lauderhill. Halpern, who was suffering from terminal prostate cancer, shot himself in a chair near his condo's parking lot. The gunshot didn't kill him until several minutes afterward. Medics reported that he was still gurgling blood when they arrived.

Rose Johnson
This 93-year-old Broward County man suffered from chronic back pain and chose to kill himself this way in his apartment. A concerned friend found him.
This 93-year-old Broward County man suffered from chronic back pain and chose to kill himself this way in his apartment. A concerned friend found him.

Six seniors leapt to their deaths in 1999, the second most common method of suicide. Two seniors poisoned themselves, one with hydrochloric acid. Two men drowned themselves, one of them an ill 84-year-old Pompano Beach man who tied a weighted bag to his neck and jumped into the community pool, where he was found by a neighbor. One elderly man cut his wrists, and another burned himself to death in his Hollywood house.

Reliable statistics on the motives for suicide are not widely available, says professor McIntosh. "The reasons aren't put on death certificates," he notes. But studies suggest that most suicides -- elderly and otherwise -- are the result of serious illness. In 1996, the last year the Broward medical examiner conducted a study on suicide, researchers found that 122 of the 222 total suicides, or 55 percent, were caused by health problems.

In the case of the elderly, this percentage is even higher. An analysis of Broward's 51 elderly suicides in 1999 reveals that the majority of cases were rooted in either illness or physical pain or both. A sample of cases:

January 12: Moe Borenstein, age 90, shot himself in bed at his Tamarac home. Borenstein's bones were crumbling from osteoporosis. His prostate and groin were riddled with cancer, his shoulder and neck ached terribly, and he'd just had two melanomas removed from his face. He couldn't move without pain. He sometimes talked of suicide before finally killing himself.

January 14: Fred Landesco, age 81, overdosed on his own medication in his Pompano Beach home, where he lived alone. He'd talked of suicide often and had a laundry list of health problems -- including blindness, a hip fracture, emphysema, and heart disease -- that confined him to bed.

February 12: Joseph Vesey, age 83, shot himself on his third-floor condo patio in Hillsboro Beach. His doctor told investigators that the act wasn't surprising: Vesey suffered from severe emphysema, required containers of oxygen to survive, and was suffering terribly. He left behind a living will and instructions for cremation.

August 13: Leon Greenblatt, age 83, shot himself on his condo patio at Century Village. Greenblatt, who was suffering from terminal lung cancer, called Hospice Home Care By-the-Sea, which cared for him, and got a receptionist on the phone. He told her that he was going to kill himself. She then heard the gunshot blast.

August 31: Sam Stoller, age 90, ran his car in his closed garage until he died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Stoller, who was suffering from cancer, had tried to shoot himself five days earlier but was caught by his daughter while he loaded his gun. Nearby was a brief, fragmented suicide note, written in a shaky hand: "Sorry, I can't take any more… my body hurts… so goodbye." His daughter took the gun away and took him to his doctor, who arranged for a counselor to stay with him. After spending the day with him, the counselor left at 7:45 p.m. She was the last person to see him alive.

To Mary Hudson it comes as no surprise that records of these senior suicides are kept hidden from public view in a little storage room at the medical examiner's office. "It's like an evil secret," says Hudson, Broward's representative for the Hemlock Society, a group dedicated to providing instructions to terminally ill patients who wish to end their lives with a minimum of trauma. "If more attention were brought to the problem, maybe people would actually start doing something to try to make things better." She views legalized doctor-assisted suicide as the ideal solution.

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