Canada has one of the highest life expectancies in the Western world, and more than 12% of the population is aged 65 years or over (1) . This proportion is bound to increase as the socioeconomic status and lifespan of Canadians continue to improve. Most elderly individuals lead productive and independent lives in the community. However, a significant proportion are isolated and frail, owing to failing physical health. This group is often more vulnerable to various crimes, including homicide. Elder abuse is of interest to mental health professionals in general, and to psychiatrists in particular, because of the increased rate of mental health problems in both perpetrators and victims (2). Although perpetrators of elder abuse are likely to have a history of significant psychopathology, most problems faced by the elderly are due more to neglect or omission than to the commission of an act. Perpetrators of elder abuse are also more likely to depend on their victims for financial assistance, while victims are more likely to be socially isolated and frail (2).
Homicide generates intense emotional reaction in the popular press, particularly when it involves elderly individuals. Most homicides are the result of domestic discord or petty quarrels; a relatively small proportion arise from altercations with strangers or from other homicidal motives (3,4). Schaler has divided homicide involving elderly individuals into 2 categories : killings independent of the victim’s age and killings in which the perpetrator exploits the frailty and social isolation of the victim (5). Compared with nonelderly victims, elderly homicide victims are more likely to be killed in their own homes, . Social isolation and weakness are significant risk factors (6). Direct physical assault in the form of blunt force injuries and strangulation are relatively common causes of death (7). Our study compares the psychosocial and clinical characteristics of men convicted of elderly homicide with the characteristics of men convicted of nonelderly homicide.
The subjects in this study were 901 men incarcerated or on parole between 1988 and 1992 in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. We undertook a retrospective review of the National Parole Board database. We reviewed the following sources of information: police reports, Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) data, autopsy reports, trial transcripts, pre- and posttrial psychiatric reports, regular case-management reports, psychological and psychiatric reports documenting offender progress during incarceration, parole board decisions, and parole officer reports. From these official documents, we extracted offender and victim demographic characteristics, index-offence characteristics, clinical information, and psychosocially relevant variables. The data were coded and tabulated for descriptive purposes and analyzed using the SPSS statistical package (8). We used chi-square with Yates’ correction to test for significant differences between proportions at the 5% level. We compared perpetrators of elderly homicide and perpetrators of nonelderly homicide. We corrected observed significant levels by adjusting the number of comparisons made.
We included a total of 901 men classified as homicide offenders under the National Parole Board (NPB) during the study period. In 738 (81.9%) cases, information was available on victim age; 67 (9.1%) offenders killed victims aged 65 years or over. The remaining 671 (90.9%) killed victims aged under 65 years. The offenders’ mean ages were 27.8 (SD 12.85) years and 27.8 (SD 9.16) years, respectively. A higher proportion of those with elderly victims were single at the time of their index offences (61.2% vs 43.4%, c2 = 7.82, P < 0.05) (Table 1).
Table 2 shows the psychiatric diagnoses and histories of the perpetrators.
A comparison of the psychiatric histories revealed that 20.8% of perpetrators
of elderly homicides and 14.6% of perpetrators of nonelderly homicides
had psychiatric treatment before the index offence (c2 = 1.87, P > 0.05).
Formal psychological assessment determined that 13.4% of the former group,
compared with 9.5% of the latter, had below-average intellectual ability
(c2 = 1.04, P > 0.05). Both groups had high rates of familial substance-related
problems: 58.2% of those with elderly victims and 60% of those with nonelderly
victims had first-degree relatives with significant substance use disorder.
Both groups had similar rates of Axis I psychiatric diagnoses. As well,
similar proportions (30%) of the 2 groups were diagnosed with personality
disorders. Unfortunately, information on psychiatric diagnoses was not
available for almost 60% of the entire study sample. As far as forensic
history was concerned, 18 (26.9%) offenders with elderly victims and 254
(37.9%) offenders with nonelderly victims had a family criminal record.
Twenty-three (34.3%) offenders with elderly victims, compared with 302
(45.0%) offenders with nonelderly victims, had been convicted for prior
violent offences. Both offender groups had similar rates of juvenile convictions
We compared the assault locations in the elderly-victim group with those in the nonelderly-victim group (Table 3). While most elderly victims were killed in their homes (68.6% vs 32.0%, c2 = 35.73, P < 0.0005), mostnonelderly victims were killed in public places (47.1% vs 22.4%, c2 = 15.03, P < 0.0005). Compared with elderly victims, a significantly higher proportion of nonelderly victims were killed in homes shared with their killers (13.6% vs 4.5%, c2 = 4.52, P < 0.05). Sharp objects were the most common murder weapons in both victim groups. About one-quarter (25.3%) of the elderly victims, compared with 15.2% of nonelderly victims, were killed by beating ( c2 = 4.66, P < 0.05). Of the elderly victims, 82.0% sustained moderate-to-severe injuries, compared with 56.3% of nonelderly victims (c2 = 16.67, P < 0.0005).
Table 3 illustrates that the most common motive for homicide in the elderly was robbery: 65.6% of the victims were killed during a property crime, compared with 22.7% of nonelderly victims killed with the same motive ( c2 = 57.80, P < 0.0005). More than 74% of nonelderly victims, compared with 34% of elderly victims, were killed during domestic quarrels (c2 = 47.17, P < 0.0005). Psychosis accounted for similar proportions of both elderly and nonelderly homicides. Similar proportions of offenders with elderly and nonelderly victims consumed alcohol (60.7% vs 63.8%, c2 = 0.18, P > 0.05) or street drugs (19.3% vs 23.1%, c2 = 0.47, P > 0.05) at the time of the homicide. Perpetrators with elderly victims were more likely to be strangers and less likely to be spouses or family members: 7.4% of elderly victims were killed by their spouses, compared with more than 20% of nonelderly victims (c2 = 9.16, P < 0.005). The relationship of the offender to the victim remains unknown in less than 10% of both groups.
Over 70% of the offenders with elderly victims, compared with 64.8% of those with nonelderly victims, admitted responsibility at the time of arrest (c2 = 1.25, P > 0.05). About the same proportions in the 2 groups pleaded guilty (41.5% vs 45.1%; c2 = 0.28, P > 0.05). When arrested, one-tenth (10.5%) of the offenders with elderly victims, compared with 17.9% of those with nonelderly victims, claimed amnesia for the homicide event (c2 = 2.36, P > 0.05).
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