NRL News

Inherent dignity, Alzheimer’s, and the human person’s right to life

by | Sep 1, 2016

By Dave Andrusko

hands-graspedEditor’s note. My family and I will be on vacation through September 6. I will occasionally add new items but for the most part we will repost “the best of the best” — the stories our readers have told us they especially liked over the last five months. This first ran May 2.

Last week we posted a story about a case that is being investigated as a murder-suicide in which a man who served on the national advisory board for the Final Exit Network was discovered alongside his wife at the Solaris HealthCare Charlotte Harbor center in Port Charlotte, Florida. Both died by gunshot wounds.

We emphasized two points. One, how this “right to die” group found excuses galore why Frank Kavanaugh evidently killed his wife, Barbara. Two, how the Washington Post glossed over what Kavanaugh did to his wife in favor of glorifying what various and sundry Final Exit types called “rational suicide.”

Such brutal, violent deaths don’t often get much publicity–or any publicity. A few years back we reported on murder/suicide of Charles Darwin Snelling, who killed his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife of 61 years, Adrienne.

As then-St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Colleen Carroll Campbell explained, the case assumed particular prominence because just a few months before he killed his wife and took his own life, Snelling had written an essay for The New York Times in which he described the “redemption” he had found in “learning how to nurture” his wife since her dementia diagnosis six years previously.

I’d like to revisit what I wrote at the time, because, in my opinion, the comments are even more relevant today.

Campbell reminded her readers of something I did not know at the time : the Snellings left behind five children and 11 grandchildren.

But there were and are wider ramifications to this tragedy– the response his actions received: “a nationwide rush to cast Snelling’s story as a sort of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for the elder set,” as Campbell described it.

Campbell has written numerous columns on Alzheimer’s. Her own father battled the disease for dozen-plus years, so she is fully aware and in no ways minimizes the enormous strain this disease puts on the caretakers.

But in her very thoughtful column, Campbell made powerful distinctions that too often get blurred.

First and foremost is a

“troubling double standard: the idea that behavior we would regard as cruel, selfish and criminal under any other circumstance is acceptable, even commendable, when directed to demented elders.”

Campbell described this as “the trend of glorifying murder-suicides among elders.”

And part of the explanation why this occurs is the assumption that the woman (it most often is a woman who is killed) consents. According to the research of one expert Campbell consulted, “most women who die this way ‘are unaware and do not consent’ to their deaths.”

Commonsense would tell you the husband is likely depressed and exhausted, and that is the case, according to Donna Cohen, a University of South Florida psychology professor, whom Campbell interviewed. She told Campbell, “I believe that even though Mr. Snelling and his wife were intertwined and devoted to each other, the act was one of depression and desperation.”

And while rare, such cases appear to be on the rise, Cohen said prophetically. Thus it is “critical to screen for depression and talk with caregivers about their desires to commit such acts,” Cohen says. “Depression is blinding.”

The most important contribution Campbell made was in her penultimate paragraph.

“Equally critical is the fortification of support networks for exhausted caregivers, who too often labor in isolation from their extended families and a wider culture that treats elder care as a trivial pursuit. The vast majority of these caregivers respond to the frailty of their demented loved ones not with violence but with quiet, faithful service, hour after hour, day after day, year after year.”

They are the true heroes, she writes, of the Alzheimer’s battle because

“theirs are the real love stories worth celebrating. And it’s past time we started recognizing their sacrifices for what they are: a powerful testament to the truth that the human person’s inherent dignity and right to life are gifts no disease, not even Alzheimer’s, can take away.”

Editor’s note. If you want to peruse stories all day long, go directly to and/or follow me on Twitter at

Categories: Elderly