On Winston Street in Temple Hills, Md., a weathered wooden ramp leads to the red door of the small brick house where Amando and Virginia Velasco lived for nearly three decades. Amando Velasco built the ramp a few years ago after his wife had a stroke, friends say, so that he could care for her at home.
But Virginia suffered more strokes, and Amando’s health began to deteriorate because of his diabetes, friends said. In recent months, he had begun to ask neighbors for help driving Virginia to doctor’s appointments.
It is that mental and physical toll, longtime friends say, that might explain why Amando shot his wife before turning the gun on himself. Both were 72.
Pamela Proctor, a friend and neighbor who has known the Velascos for nearly 30 years, said she remembers how devastated Amando was after his wife had her first stroke.
“She’s my whole life,” Proctor, 58, remembered him saying. “I love her. I love her.”
Prince George’s County police found the Velascos at about 2 p.m. Wednesday. Detectives are calling the incident a murder-suicide and say there had been no previous signs of trouble. They were called to the house by someone asking them to check on the couple’s welfare.
Experts on aging say they expect to see an increase in these types of cases as baby boomers age and experience the strain of caring for an ill or disabled spouse.
“This is going to become more and more of a problem,” said Patrick Arbore, program director at the Institute on Aging and founder of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention. “It’s not an easy job [to be a caregiver], and to think that one is older and dealing with their own health issues really contributes to this kind of tragedy.”
According to a 2009 survey from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, older caregivers are more likely to be aiding a spouse or partner. And the people providing daily medical support and attention to their partners are aging themselves. Ten years ago, the average age of caregivers was 46. That has increased to 49 in more recent years.
Dwight Grant, 60, has been a friend and neighbor to the Velascos for the past five years. He said speech and physical therapists frequently visited the couple’s house. And Grant and other neighbors would drive Virginia Velasco to medical appointments to help her husband.
“They were the best neighbors I’ve ever had,” said Grant, who added that the Velascos had been married for 47 years. “They were sweet and loving.”
Before Virginia Velasco’s health deteriorated, she spent a lot of time outside. Amando Velasco liked to tinker with tools and was always prepared to help his neighbors with yardwork.
At least seven bird feeders dangled over the wheelchair ramp. Virginia Velasco liked birds and her husband wanted to make her happy, Grant said.
The couple had asked neighbors to pitch in, but never indicated that they were struggling, Grant and Proctor said. And Amando Velasco’s brother, who lives in the Philippines, recently died, but he couldn’t attend the service, Proctor said. That may have added to the stress.
“He and I talked a lot,” said Grant, who is a church minister. “We were praying for each other.”
Stephen R. Treat is a senior therapist at the Council for Relationships based in Philadelphia. He said that murder-suicides are not unusual among the elderly.
“It’s violence at one level,” Treat said. “But it is also hopelessness and desperateness, and the love and caring and wanting to go together.”
In some cases, people tending to aging spouses shuttle them to medical appointments and assist them in the bathroom. They have little time to care for themselves. The stress builds.
“Think of it as a backpack,” Treat said. “I could put 30 pounds in there and you could stand up just fine. But if I add 100 pounds or more, there comes a point where your knees can’t actually hold you up.”
Proctor said that although her 25-year-old son would sometimes take the Velascos to medical appointments, for the most part, Amando Velasco wanted to take care of his wife himself.
“He was a proud man,” Proctor said. “He wouldn’t let anyone help him push her in the wheelchair when he first came home with her after the stroke.”
Proctor met the Velascos when she was pregnant with her now-adult son. The neighbors barely knew each other, but the Velascos knocked on Proctor’s door with gifts — a couple of baby outfits.
Proctor last saw Amando Velasco on Monday. He was on his porch, smiling and waving the way he often did. But now, she said, it’s hard to look at the house across the street.
“Nobody knew,” Proctor said. “But I guess everyone has a breaking point. I just wish he would have let someone know he was at that point so that someone could have helped them.”
Peter Hermann, Dana Hedgepeth and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.