Like many Americans today, guns were a big part of Franklin Poston’s life. He grew up on a farm and as an adult, he spent time at gun ranges perfecting his aim. Franklin also spent weeks polishing his guns before each hunting season.
“Every picture I have of him he’s holding a bird or a deer he shot,” says his daughter, Alyson Poston, who was four when she received her first rifle as a present from her dad. So when Franklin was diagnosed at age 61 with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and his usually sharp mind began to sputter, his family faced the daunting question, “What do we do with Dad’s guns?”
There were a lot of them. There was the handgun kept in the bedside table. There were the half dozen rifles on proud display in his office. Up in the attic, tucked away in ice chests, were a dozen or more guns he’d inherited over the years from grandpas and uncles.
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“As a family we knew that somebody with Alzheimer’s in a house full of guns is not a good thing. Either he could use them on someone or use them on himself,” says Alyson.
The Pew Research Center reports that 40% of Americans age 65 and older live in a home with a firearm. About 5.3% of Americans in that same age range have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. What’s more, the numbers of Americans with Alzheimer’s is expected to balloon to 16 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Organization.
This basically means there are lot of Americans out there with both dementia and access to guns. But how risky is it, really, for someone with Alzheimer’s to have access to a gun?
Experts say that depends on how far the disease has progressed. Aside from the typical forgetfulness associated with Alzheimer’s, people with the disease may be prone to bouts of anger, confusion and hallucinations. Even the most experienced marksman can lose his or her ability to make proper judgement calls. The last thing you want is your loved one mistaking a caregiver for an intruder or pulling out a gun in public during a burst of inexplicable anger.
But while a few stories trickle out every few years about a senior with dementia shooting someone (usually a loved one) with a gun, the biggest risk to seniors with guns in the home is suicide. The New York Times reports that in 2014, 5,000 people age 65 and older committed suicide using a firearm.
Experts agree that the best way to keep a loved one with dementia safe from guns is to simply remove guns from the home.
Alyson’s family tried many tactics to get her father to give up his guns. At first they lied and told him guns weren’t allowed in the family’s new retirement community. They then suggested he sell some guns at gun shows, which he did. They snuck some of the guns found in the attic out of the house.
But even with these tactics, they couldn’t get rid of all the guns.
“Sometimes my dad would be cooperative. But sometimes he’d be a big pain and say, ‘You’re not touching my guns,’” Alyson remembers. “It had everything to do with how the Alzheimer’s was affecting him.”
Legally, you can’t just take someone’s gun and move it to your home or sell it without their permission. Parents have been known to call police and report their guns stolen by their children. While some experts recommend getting the police involved, a gun is legal property and chances are, the local sheriff won’t simply take someone else’s gun and destroy it for you.
The federal Brady Act bars gun sales and ownership to anyone adjudicated mentally “defective,” but as Alice Tripp of the Texas Rifle Association points out, who wants to take “grandma or great-grandma to court to have her adjudicated mentally unfit?”
Tripp, 71, is a registered gun lobbyist in the state of Texas and fiercely defends one’s right to bear arms. But she is also a pragmatic person and she believes that when it comes to Alzheimer’s and guns, safety is of utmost importance, as is maintaining a gun owner’s dignity. “You lose dignity when you lose control,” says Tripp, who says there can be both control and dignity at every stage in keeping a senior with dementia safe from guns.
These steps can keep a senior with dementia safe from guns, while also maintaining their dignity:
Alyson now believes the smartest tactic her family took was to remove ammunition from the home. “My brother left a few empty shells so my dad could see them and feel like they were still there,” she says.
Tripp agrees this is a great first step. “A firearm without ammunition is nothing,” says Tripp, who adds, “If this person is no longer responsible to have a firearm, they’re obviously not driving so they can’t buy more ammunition.”
“Tell them you’re not taking their firearms, but you are going to secure the ammunition so it’s not lost,” Tripp recommends. “There’s nothing worse than having your things ‘stolen’ and sold. If you’ve removed the car keys and the ammunition, they can still look out and see their car. They can still see their guns.”
As the disease progresses, having even unloaded guns in a house may not be safe. If an emergency responder comes out to the house, for example, and a person with dementia is holding a gun, they won’t always ask first if it’s loaded.
In this case, Tripp recommends storing the guns in a locked gun safe.
“The person is not going to remember the safe combination,” she said. “And if they do, they’re not going to be able to open it.”
Experts recommend family members sit down to discuss guns in the home as soon as a diagnosis is made. Ask questions such as, “When the time comes that you aren’t able to safely use your gun anymore, what would you like us to do with it?”
You can even write up and sign an agreement, which can be handy later. Hopefully, with advance planning, you won’t have to lie to your loved one or sneak their guns out to keep them safe.
“Aging can be lonely and depressing. It’s hard to parent the parent,” says Tripp, who adds, “But to a parent, they’re still our children even if they are 50, 60 years old.”
Do you have experience with guns and a senior with dementia? How do you keep your senior loved ones safe? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.