- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2000

Elderly Americans, traditionally seen as prime victims of violent crime, increasingly turn out to be the criminals these days.

"We're seeing more violent crimes being committed by older people, which is sort of surprising," says Patricia Bloom, a psychologist with the University of Miami's Center on Aging and Disability.

"We had an incident here in Florida not long ago, in which a 72-year-old man was shot and killed as he was breaking into the home of a 68-year-old man. Both of them had guns," Mrs. Bloom says.

Her institute trains police officers to deal more effectively with seniors be they crime victims or criminal offenders. Such training can be difficult because cultural norms pose major obstacles.

"Many officers are very reluctant to put handcuffs on Grandpa … after all, we still have the old stereotypes of the aged, which portray them as fragile and unproductive," Mrs. Bloom says in a telephone interview. "But police officers must come to recognize that Grandpa even Grandma is dangerous."

No one is suggesting there is a sudden crime wave by seniors. In fact, golden-age offenders are rare in the overall criminal population, acknowledge criminal justice, health and social services professionals whose work brings them into direct contact with elderly people involved in crime.

Nevertheless, they say that as the nation's elderly population rapidly expands and stays healthier longer, as baby boomers who have abused alcohol and illegal drugs enter the ranks of senior citizens, and as the incidence of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia reach epidemic proportions, Americans can expect to see more violent behavior by older Americans.

As Mrs. Bloom indicates, violent crime committed by the elderly already is on the increase in the United States.

A new book, "Elders, Crime, and the Criminal Justice System," by Max B. Rothman, points out that 3,347 persons age 65 and over were arrested for committing violent crimes in 1989. In 1995, that figure had climbed to 4,043, for a 21 percent increase. The jump is almost 6 percent higher than the increase in arrests among the population as a whole.

In the "rapidly changing age structure of the U.S. population, the number of elders, defined here as those 65 and older, has become the fastest growing age group," Mr. Rothman writes.

In 1997, approximately 34.1 million adults age 65 and over lived in the United States. They represented 12.7 percent of the total population, according to AARP, which provided the data.

These numbers are expected to rise sharply between 2010 and 2030 as a result of aging baby boomers and increasing longevity among those 85 and above. The AARP says current projections indicate that the number of persons 65 and older will more than double by 2030, reaching 70 million. This means the elderly will constitute 20 percent of the U.S. population.

"Given this marked increase of elders relative to the other age segments in the population, it is reasoned that, at a minimum, the number of older offenders will increase as well, even if their crime rates remain stable," Mr. Rothman writes.

Mrs. Bloom puts it this way: "The ages 18 to 35 are the most prevalent for [committing] violent crimes and, in fact, all crimes. But we are living longer and healthier. Today a person can do at 60 what someone used to do at 40. So the upper age end [for crime] will start to advance."

Suspects who are seniors

Two high-profile cases in the Washington area in recent months feature elderly men accused of murder in the slayings of close relatives. Mental disturbance is a factor in both cases.

In mid-July, Robert Davis Jr., a 74-year-old retired postal worker, drove to the D.C. apartment of his sister, Lucille Shropshire, 69, and shot her to death with a .38 caliber handgun, police say. The D.C. resident killed his sister because he thought she had cast a deadly voodoo spell on him, investigators say.

Mr. Davis was charged with first-degree murder; a trial date has not been set. He is living at home under monitor.

Two weeks after that slaying, 91-year-old George H. Butler shot and killed a nephew, James T. Newman, 59, who had come to his rural Upper Marlboro, Md., home to mow the lawn, Prince George's County police say. Armed with a shotgun and rifle, Mr. Butler barricaded himself in the house and kept about 100 police officers at bay for 32 hours.

Mr. Butler remained awake throughout the standoff and fired at officers several times, police say. He did not succumb to tear gas. Police arrested him after sending a robotic water cannon into the house and shooting high-pressure water at him, injuring his left knee.

Mr. Butler was admitted to Prince George's Hospital Center for mental evaluation; he was only recently released. He was indicted Sept. 29 for second-degree murder and pleaded "not criminally responsible by reason of insanity."

Mr. Butler was transferred to a state mental hospital, where psychiatrists are trying to determine whether he is criminally responsible and competent to stand trial, says Paula Burr, spokeswoman for the Prince George's County State's Attorney's Office.

Other recent violent crimes elsewhere in which the elderly are accused include:

• In early August, Bassil Grice, 77, of Pocatello, Idaho, was charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of his 39-year-old estranged wife, who died in a hail of bullets.

• In Pompano Beach, Fla., a 76-year-old man is charged with shooting and wounding a man in a neighboring condominium in June after claiming the neighbor tried to poison him by spraying insecticide in his apartment.

• In August, an 83-year-old man shot a doctor who was examining him at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Salisbury, N.C., as part of an involuntary mental commitment order. Police shot and killed the mental patient after he threatened officers with the gun.

• A 95-year-old Florida man pulled a gun on state forestry employees who went to his home last summer to chop down a diseased citrus tree. "The guy almost got shot by one of our deputies before being grabbed from behind and subdued by one of the state forestry workers," Broward County Sheriff's Department spokesman Jim Leljedal told reporters.

Rise in assaults

Mr. Rothman's book, one of the first to offer an in-depth examination of senior crime, points out that most such offenses are minor and involve property or alcohol. But the author expresses concern about the rise in violent crime by older Americans especially in the category of "family violence" even though the numbers are comparatively small.

The book includes federal data showing aggravated assaults and "other assaults" account for most of the increase in violent crimes by seniors as is true for the population as a whole.

Arrests for aggravated assault in the total population rose by 23 percent between 1989 and 1995. For "other assaults," arrests were up 26 percent.

Arrests of elderly suspects for aggravated assault and other assaults also rose sharply. The number of persons 65 and over arrested for aggravated assault soared from 2,771 to 3,510 during that six-year period, a 27 percent increase. The number arrested for "other assaults" jumped 28 percent from 4,850 to 6,207.

What's more, "older people have been the fastest-growing age group in prison over the past 10 years," Mr. Rothman says in a telephone interview.

Older inmates defined in his book as age 50 and older grew from 4.9 percent of the prison population in 1990 to 6.8 percent in 1997, a jump of 38 percent.

Mr. Rothman says the number of older prisoners more than doubled between 1991 and 1998. He estimates about 100,000 older inmates are confined in U.S. jails today.

"If there are 100,000 older people imprisoned today, what's it going to be tomorrow?" Mr. Rothman asks.

"Given these rising figures, many predict the day will come soon when correctional nursing homes become commonplace. Some experts have suggested ironically that states will need to rename prisons 'Centers for the Treatment of Old Folks' or 'Old Age Homes for Felons,' " he writes.

Dr. Allan Anderson, a board-certified geriatric and forensic psychiatrist at Dorchester General Hospital in Cambridge, Md., isn't surprised by the sharp rise in reported assaults by the elderly. At least some of it can be attributed to mental disorders that plague more and more older Americans, he says.

The condition known as dementia, of which Alzheimer's disease is the most common form, is the progressive breakdown of intellectual capabilities. Dementia often is marked by confusion, chronic memory loss and personality disturbances that accompany pathological changes in the brain.

Many laymen associate Alzheimer's only with forgetfulness. But Dr. Anderson says he has frequently witnessed physical assaults by elderly patients with Alzheimer's or other types of dementia.

"When a senior is involved in serious crime, over 50 percent of the time it's a dementia problem," says Dr. Mark Fettman, an instructor in psychiatry at the University of Michigan medical school who is board-certified in geriatric and forensic psychiatry.

The dementia factor

Meanwhile, the nation's population of Alzheimer's patients is skyrocketing. In 1980, an estimated 2.9 million seniors had the disease. Today, the total is about 4 million, according to the Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association.

The disease strikes about one in 10 who are older than 65 and nearly half of those older than 85. The association anticipates the number of Americans suffering from Alzheimer's will double by 2030 and reach 14 million by 2050.

While Alzheimer's Association officials insist violence by Alzheimer's patients is rare, Dr. Anderson asserts, "It's rare because it is not reported."

In fact, he says, "Such assaults are very common in nursing homes against staff … many patients with Alzheimer's suffer from paranoia, hallucinations and delusion. Those are symptoms that predispose them to violence."

Steve McConnell, spokesman for the Alzheimer's Association, says, "It's relatively rare that we get calls about violent behavior … but we are getting a few more calls these days about people with dementia who have guns."

"Dementia is a catalyst for crime," the University of Miami's Mrs. Bloom says.

Studies suggest up to 70 percent of those diagnosed with dementia develop significant behavioral problems in the first six or seven years of illness, according to the publication "Aggression in Patients With Dementia," released by the University of Rochester Medical Center. An analysis of 222 geriatric admissions to state hospitals found that 63 percent were violent and 8 percent used guns.

"Severe violence and assaults [by demented seniors] are rare, but they do occur. And when they do, they are tragic," Dr. Anderson says.

Examples include a case last October in which an 83-year-old woman at an Illinois nursing home died after a 66-year-old dementia patient started screaming, grabbed her and pushed her into a wall. A year earlier, at a Louisiana nursing home, a 79-year-old resident died in a violent fight between two Alzheimer's patients.

The roots of violent behavior in someone suffering from dementia "are often anxiety and fear from the person's feeling threatened," Mr. McConnell says. The person "perceives a threat and responds accordingly."

The good news, Dr. Anderson says, "is that we can treat these patients so they don't repeat the behavior that provoked the violence." This also requires training nursing home staffers to respond correctly to patients who feel anxious or threatened, he says.

"We need more geriatric-trained psychiatrists in nursing homes," Dr. Anderson says.

However, if demented patients are widowed or living alone, their mental disorders may not be diagnosed.

Mr. Butler, the 91-year-old Upper Marlboro man charged with killing his nephew, fits this mold. Neighbors told police he was demented, but apparently no one recognized how seriously ill he was.

When officers arrived at his home following the fatal shooting, they found Mr. Butler mowing the lawn not far from the body.

More than statistics reveal

A similar case in July 1999 in Boca Raton, Fla., involved an 88-year-old widower later found to have dementia. The man in question, Meir Gotleib, stabbed a nursing assistant with a steak knife in a doctor's office after being told his appointment had been canceled.

Mr. Gotleib originally was charged with felony aggravated assault and jailed. But after it was determined he was not competent to stand trial, he was placed in a nursing home.

Though deranged seniors are committing crimes, they aren't necessarily included in official crime statistics. Some contend this skews what is really going on in the elderly population.

For instance, official Justice Department data show that arrests for homicide of those 65 or older fell by 27 percent.

If a senior is arrested in a homicide but not charged due to serious mental impairment, however, he will not show up in crime records, a spokesman for Prince George's County police says.

Dr. Fettman, in an article published last month, tells of a 71-year-old man with a "delusional disorder" who in 1992 shot and killed a young doctor because he believed the doctor was poisoning him.

The elderly man thought he had a serious hearing problem and felt as though doctors were torturing him and making his condition worse. Dr. Fettman, who specializes in treating Alzheimer's patients who kill, says no one seemed to realize the man's medical difficulties were in his brain, not his ear.

Dr. Fettman quotes the elderly man as saying: "There's no question about what I did. I committed the act. But he betrayed me. I trusted him."

The psychiatrist says there was legal wrangling over whether the man was criminally responsible. The jury's choice was between "not guilty by reason of insanity" or "guilty but mentally ill."

The jury accepted the thinking of two experts for the prosecution who held that although the accused was delusional, he knew the doctor would die when he pulled the trigger.

By being found "guilty but mentally ill," the man spent his final years in a prison hospital rather than in a state hospital for the criminally insane, says Dr. Fettman, who adds that he has serious concerns about using such a defense.

Alcohol and drugs

There is no good information on the prevalence of such mental disorders among the elderly. Estimates range from 14 percent to 40 percent, according to Mr. Rothman's book.

The author also believes that understanding the relationship between violent crime and alcohol and drug abuse, family status, race and health will be important in keeping seniors out of trouble in years to come.

Mr. Rothman's book cites a 1990 study of 179 "non-justifiable" homicides committed by people 60 and older, which found that 44 percent had consumed alcohol before the killing and 46 percent had an "extended history of alcohol abuse."

Alcohol and prescription drugs "without question" are risk factors for criminal activity by the elderly, Mrs. Bloom says, whether it be shoplifting or something far more serious.

Both can cause a "loss of impulse control, an inability to fully understand the consequences of one's actions," she says. "Alcohol is to an old person what crack cocaine is to a young person."

Many seniors living in retirement communities in Florida disconnected from family, lonely and depressed begin sipping cocktails in the early afternoon and continue well into the night, Mrs. Bloom says.

Other factors that can make seniors vulnerable to crime, Mr. Rothman says, include limited financial independence, survival worries, unstructured time schedules, a lower tolerance for life's frustrations and concerns about declining physical and mental health.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide