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Dementia and Gun Safety


Here in the U.S., there has been a lot of talk lately about gun control.  This is largely due to some very high-profile mass shootings, one involving a number of small children and their teachers.  Now, these incidents have not been carried out by persons with dementia.  But I read a newspaper editorial this morning that stated, given some of the cognitive changes that take place at some point in persons with dementia, perhaps we need to be discussing the issue of gun safety with these individuals.  So, I thought this would be a worthwhile topic to study.  I actually did find an article on the Alzheimer’s Association‘s website dealing with this very issue.  I thought I would share some of its high points here, with some personal introspection to follow.

Safety is a major concern for individuals with dementia.  At some stage in the disease process things like driving, use of the stove, wandering, being home alone, and other matters, need to be discussed.  In the early stages of the disease, the person should have no difficulty with these things, although some compensatory strategies might need to be put in place (for instance, having the person carry a card with his home address and phone number).  But, eventually he will begin to show a decline in skills such as judgment, memory, perception, and reasoning, that might cause him to be unsafe without supervision.

Most caregivers are very good about providing for their loved one’s safety in the areas I listed above, and many others.  Often, however, gun safety is something that gets overlooked.  If there are no weapons in the house, it’s not an issue.  But often the person with dementia may have enjoyed hunting, or have previously worked in law enforcement, or otherwise owned a weapon due to concerns over personal safety.  And, most likely, they have been trained in firearms safety, and been diligent about cleaning, storing, and using their weapons in a safe manner.  Or, if the person with dementia doesn’t own or use  a gun, there may be someone else living in the home who does.

And here’s something to consider.  Most gun owners take great care to protect children in the home from potential injury related to weapons stored in the home.  And I’m not suggesting here that persons with dementia are like children, but at some point they will exhibit some of the same deficits in problem solving and safety awareness that children do.  And so, we need to take steps to protect them as well.

Some of the dementia-related problems that are significant when it comes to gun ownership and use include the following.  Gun owners are almost always trained in gun safety, and how to clean their weapon.  However, as memory begins to fade, those skills may become lost, or not followed as accurately as they should.  Many persons with dementia also experience changes in personality and emotion.  Depression is common at some point in the disease.  The individual may be more prone to anger and aggression.

All of the above difficulties will be present at different times, and at different levels, in persons with dementia.  Or, they may not be present at all.  We are all individuals, and it’s hard to predict what will happen in the future.  But preparations need to be made, if only because of the risk that these problems may develop at some point in time.  And, since this is a discussion that should include the person with dementia, it’s a discussion that should take place earlier rather than later.  His opinions and wishes should be taken into consideration, without making him feel as if he’s being dictated to.  It may be that he will make a conscious choice to get rid of his weapons, or make other provisions to increase household safety.  However, if the diagnosis is made much later, when the person is not able to participate in such discussions, then caregivers will need to take measures into their own hands.

Here are some tips for dealing with guns, or other weapons, in the house:

1.  The best course of action is to remove the guns from the house altogether.

2.  If this is not possible, guns should be stored separately from ammunition.  Storage should be in a locked case or vault.

3.  The person with dementia should not have unsupervised access to the weapons.

4.  All adults in the house should receive training in the handling of firearms.  This includes not just the caregiver, but any other adult in the house.  It might be good for frequent visitors to have at least some superficial training as well.

5.  Consider having a neighbor, a friend, or an adult child that does not live with the person with dementia “borrow” or “store” the weapons.  There is legal paperwork available to legally transfer ownership of weapons to another person.

6.  Tell the person with dementia that the weapons are being sent out for “professional cleaning.”

7.  Have the trigger mechanisms disabled professionally.  However, it must be said that if law enforcement ever becomes involved, they will need to act as if the weapons are fully functional.

8.  Contact a professional firearms dealer about having the weapons put on consignment.

9.  If you are afraid to handle the weapons, you can contact the local Sheriff”s office or police department, and they will come to your house and remove them for destruction.  Or, put the weapons in the trunk of your car, and take them to the Sheriff’s office, and they will come out to the car to remove them.  They will most likely need to see a statement of diagnosis from the person’s physician.

Again, this is a highly personal matter.  Each instance will need to be handled differently, based on the needs and the personality of the person with dementia and their families.  But it is important to at least discuss the issue, and make decisions as early as possible.



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