Cognitive decline is a very real part of life for millions of seniors and their families. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that one-third of seniors will die with some form of dementia, not necessarily as the cause of death, but as a factor that often complicates their lives, and the lives of those they love, in their later years. With that many seniors affected by diminishing mental faculties, all of society has a major stake in how to keep them safe.
But one of the greatest dangers may be the one often overlooked: what about seniors who own guns or who live in households with easy access to firearms? When do they give up their rights of gun ownership for their own safety and that of those around them?
Giving Up a Firearm May Be Just Like Giving Up the Car Keys
To explore this topic, we return to this 2021 article on the HealthDay website, written by reporter Amy Norton. “Just as some elderly drivers need to give up their car keys, older gun owners may eventually face ‘firearm retirement,’” Norton writes. “And a preliminary study suggests they are open to the idea.” She’s referring to a set of focus-group interviews with older gun owners, done last year in Seattle (home of AgingOptions) by researchers at the University of Washington.
“It’s an important issue,” says HealthDay, “given that 40 percent of older Americans live in a home with a gun.” That’s according to lead researcher Laura Prater, who works at the UW’s Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center. The study found that many of the senior respondents in the focus groups had already considered putting some limits on their firearm access, but most had not yet laid out firm plans to determine when and how.
Firearms Plus Dementia: A Frightening Combination
The concern, says the HealthDay report, is obvious. “A significant number of those seniors have or will develop dementia or major depression,” Norton writes. “If they have easy access to a firearm, they could harm themselves, accidentally or intentionally.” The UW’s Laura Prater says their study does not suggest taking firearms from older adults who can still use them safely. But once a senior’s mental state puts themselves or others at risk, the situation changes dramatically.
“The point, [Prater] stressed, is that gun owners, family members and health care providers should talk about the future,” says the article, “including what should happen with household firearms once a person’s health makes access a hazard.” Prater advocates making the topic of gun possession “like a normal conversation, just like you plan for other things, like driving, retirement or finances.”
Study Shows Older Gun Owners Generally Accept “Retiring” Their Weapons
With gun rights so politicized in the U.S., one might assume that older gun owners would dig in their heels and resist the very idea of giving up their guns – but as it turns out, that’s not so. “A big takeaway from the interviews was that gun owners accepted the concept of firearm ‘retirement,’” HealthDay reports. That’s because they take their responsibility seriously.
“Older adults want to be responsible gun owners,” Laura Prater told HealthDay. “What they weren’t open to was someone else making the decision for them.” As with everything else about aging, this attitude demands that families practice thorough planning before the time when early-stage dementia begins to advance and communication becomes a challenge.
How Many Guns? Start with a Firearm Inventory
The University of Washington recommends that families might start by taking a firearm inventory, where the older adult and family members account for all weapons in the home. “Many owners, Prater noted, have multiple firearms, and family members or other caregivers are not always aware of them,” HealthDay reports.
After tallying up all the weapons in the household, seniors might be more comfortable disposing of firearms that are not being used, allowing for a kind of transition period. (Make sure you check with local law enforcement on how best to do that.) This also gives families the opportunity to talk with their loved one about what each firearm means to them. If they associate their gun with safety, then families need to talk about how they can still feel safe if the gun is no longer around. “If they value a rifle because hunting was an important activity for them, then the question may be how to replace that lost activity,” says the article.
No One Knows the Extent of the Problem
Part of the challenge this issue presents, HealthDay reports, is a lack of reliable information concerning the scope of the problem. “Data are lacking on how many Americans with dementia live in a home with firearms – and how often that ends in harm,” says the article. In one recent study of 124 caregivers, one-third of those caring for someone with dementia said there was a firearm in the house. “On the other hand, only 5 percent of the entire group said a doctor had ever talked to them about firearm safety,” HealthDay warns.
Experts say more doctors need to have the issue on their radar, and include it with other household safety questions. “The general thinking,” said one researcher, “is that when dementia reaches the stage where driving is unsafe, handling a firearm is unsafe, too.”
Suggestions on Gun Safety from the Alzheimer’s Association
We visited the website of the Alzheimer’s Association and found this important set of recommendations about guns and dementia. We’ll abbreviate their points here but we encourage you to click the link and print out the pdf to share with family and friends.
The following may help as you prepare to discuss firearms:
- Begin with a discussion of who might inherit various pieces. This can be a way to move to a discussion of safety at home when the responsibility for keeping firearms in good working order becomes too difficult or is no longer possible.
- Consider selling some valuable items that are no longer used to help pay for care.
- Discuss donating an antique collection for others to appreciate.
- Enlist the help of a knowledgeable, trusted authority figure and get the family’s agreement ahead of time to follow his or her advice. Consider inviting trusted relatives or hunting buddies to take part in the conversation with the family.
- If there is no consent to remove the weapons, removal may need to be done against the person’s wishes, ideally while he or she is out of the house. Also remove reminders of the weapons, including cases, ammunition, racks and holsters.
- Address any anger or other emotions that may occur as a result of the change by acknowledging feelings.
- Redirecting to an activity that can be done together may help reduce feelings of anger or other emotions.
- If you need assistance removing the guns, your local law enforcement agency may be able to help.
- Laws around selling or transferring firearms vary from state to state. It is important to familiarize yourself with applicable laws in your state.
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(originally reported at https://consumer.healthday.com)