Nearly half of all seniors have at least one gun in their house. A gun offers some seniors a sense of safety, and can be an important tool for hobbies like hunting and recreational shooting. But among seniors who have dementia, a gun transitions from a useful tool into a potentially lethal weapon. Monitoring a senior gun owner for dementia symptoms may save their life.
Here are the warning signs to look for, and how to ensure your family’s safety.
The Dangers of Senior Gun Ownership
Many seniors, especially those who live alone, own guns as a form of self-protection. Yet research shows that gun owners are far more likely to harm themselves or someone they love than they are to fend off an attacker. The risks of gun ownership in seniors with dementia include:
- Accidental shootings. Dementia undermines executive functioning, and can erode impulse control and short-term memory. This increases the risk that a senior may store a gun in an unsafe location, or forget how to use the gun.
- Acts of violence. Especially in seniors with a history of aggression, dementia may increase the risk of violence. Some seniors with dementia struggle with impulse control issues. So an act of violence that a senior might once have only thought about can begin looking like a viable option.
- Violence against the senior. Guns, especially unsecured guns, can be used to harm the senior who owns them. An intruder might find the gun. Someone who learns that a senior with dementia owns guns may gain an incentive to break in.
- Accidental injuries. Seniors with dementia are less likely to practice safe gun storage, raising the possibility that a child or other vulnerable family member might find the gun.
Dementia Symptoms and Gun Ownership: 5 Important Warning Signs
A study conducted in the 1990s suggests that 40-60 percent of people with dementia have guns in their homes. Some signs that your loved one may need to give up their gun include:
- Changes in mood, personality, or behavior. Dementia can change the way a person thinks and feels. It may even make them aggressive, especially if they have frontotemporal dementia. A gun can be deadly in the hands of someone who is angry, aggressive, or depressed.
- Difficulty managing daily tasks. A person whose short-term memory has declined may forget to turn off the stove or lock the door. This means they might also forget to lock up the gun, put it someplace the grandkids can’t get it, or remove the bullets.
- Attention problems. Many forms of dementia compromise a senior’s attention. When this happens, a senior might forget to finish unloading the chamber of a gun, forget where a gun is stored, or be unable to remember how the gun functions.
- A history of dangerous decisions, such as driving on a suspended license, getting into car accidents, or forgetting to eat.
- Confusion about who people are. A person with dementia who can no longer identify loved ones can easily mistake a loved one for an intruder.
What to Do About a Person With Dementia Who Owns Guns
It can be difficult to talk to a senior about giving up their guns, especially if the senior is a lifetime gun lover. But family members must keep in mind that a person’s desire to own guns should not trump the right of other people to be safe. Laws about gun ownership in people with dementia vary from state to state, so the best option is to get your loved one to willingly give up their gun. Some strategies that can help include:
- Talking to a newly diagnosed senior about their gun before dementia undermines their ability to make good decisions. Some advance directives allow seniors to set a “firearm retirement date.”
- Talking to your loved one about your feelings, rather than labeling or stigmatizing them. Explain that their gun makes you feel afraid.
- Asking your loved one to contemplate how they would feel if they injured someone, and then giving them examples of how their gun might be used to harm someone.
- Expressing concern about safety rather than stigmatizing gun ownership. It’s common for families to have different views about gun ownership. One recent study found that messages that are sensitive to the views of gun owners are more effective than messages that stigmatize gun ownership or label guns as “bad.”
If these options fail, you may need to consult an elder care lawyer or enlist the assistance of your loved one’s doctor. If you are already a guardian, you may be able to simply take the gun.
Conversations about dementia can be hard, but they can also save lives. For more help having difficult conversations with a senior loved one, download our free guide, How to Talk to Your Parent About Senior Living.