By Sylvana Rinehart, Certified Senior Advisor at Concierge Care Advisors
I recently had an experience that prompts me to share a concern that has been bothering me more of late. Many years ago, my first serious boyfriend gave me his colt pistol he used during the Algerian war. He briefly showed me how to use it but seemed uncertain as to its reliability. I opted to just look at it and admire the craft work, thanked him for this unusual gift which must have meant a lot to him at one point in his life, and left it on a table in my room. As time passed, the boyfriend moved on, and I didn’t notice that the gun had also disappeared, until my father told me that if I have a gun in the house I’d better be prepared to know how to use it. As I didn’t have any intentions of using it, I was not displeased or surprised that he had removed it and disposed of it somehow.
My father was a wise man, even tempered, and certainly not a gun aficionado. Full disclosure: at the time I was living outside of the U.S. and in a third world country, with little or no regulations or laws regarding fire arms. Now living in the States, I have come to understand the importance of fire arms ownership with the baggage and controversy that comes with it. This blog is not intended to be political in nature and is not meant to be judgmental in any way. As a professional Senior Care Advisor, my intention is to share my concerns of guns in the hands of seniors, especially those likely to have dementia.
In a recent New York Times article by Paula Span, she wrote that “Barbara Herrington, a geriatric care manager in Polk County, Fla., was calling on a 72-year-old woman with dementia and with a long history of alcoholism. Ms. Herrington knew her client would be angry that morning. Her daughter had taken the car away the day before because her mother was ignoring a neurologist’s instructions to stop driving, and was heading out at night to buy liquor.The door to the woman’s small home stood open — she often left it unlocked for her caregivers — so Ms. Herrington knocked, then leaned in and called her client’s name.“She came out of the bedroom holding a pistol with both hands,” Ms. Herrington recalled. The woman took aim at her visitor, announcing that she wanted her car back.“Her hands were shaking, shaking, shaking,” Ms. Herrington said. “I didn’t know if it was loaded or not, and I didn’t care.” She backed away and called the daughter and the police, who later that day removed two Berettas and a pellet gun from the house.
The article correctly points out that the “attachment to guns often dies hard for older people.” Even after dementia develops, relinquishing them can feel “almost like an amputation,” said Dr. Michael Victoroff, a family medicine specialist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine (and a certified firearms instructor). One of his patients, a retired police officer, had long slept with his .38 service revolver by his bed. But as he neared age 80 and his dementia deepened, “he would wake up at night and not recognize his wife, see her as a stranger in his house,” Dr. Victoroff said. Once Dr. Victoroff learned that the man had pointed the loaded .38 at his wife, the situation grew urgent. They turned to the man’s former partner on the police force, someone he trusted, to persuade him to give up his weapon.
Professionals, families and friends frequently worry that seniors with memory loss and confusion are driving. We all have stories about how difficult it is to take away car keys and “disabling” cars so that our loved-ones no longer can get behind the wheel endangering themselves and others. Reflecting on the above, my clear sense is we will be well advised to also worry about guns in the house. It is not enough to allow the guns to remain in the house and remove the cartridges. If confronted, one would naturally assume the gun is loaded, as in Ms. Harrington’s case above. It’s important to note that a senior at various stages of dementia may be unable to distinguish loved ones from intruders. As their decision-making ability deteriorates, they can become paranoid, depressed, impulsive, agitated or aggressive. They could be manipulating their favorite pistol and inadvertently shoot those that are closest to them. And it could be a caregiver, spouse, or child. Nationwide, there are several cases of men with dementia brandishing guns and being fatally shot by police. In all the above cases, these seniors were deemed incompetent to stand trial.
The Pew Research Center reported last year that about a third of Americans over age 65 own a gun, and an additional 12 percent live with someone who does. “Safety planning for adults with dementia is something every clinician thinks about, but I don’t think firearms are often on the radar,” said Dr. Donovan Maust, a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan Medical School and co-author of a recent article on guns and dementia in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
I was compelled to write this blog because of a recent unfortunate and tragic experience where I suspected there might be guns in the household and had made sure they were secured. I thought that was enough. It wasn’t. Sadly, a family member was shot by someone with dementia. Understandably, there is only so much professionals and family members can do to try to reduce the risk of this occurring. Having just gone through an incident myself, I remain convinced we need to try.