Safety First When Coping with Caregiving and Dementia
by Amy Natt, MS, CMC, CSA
Q: I recently hired a caregiver to assist my mother at home. Mom has dementia and has been experiencing increased memory loss in recent months. She has always kept a gun in her home and is adamant on keeping it now. The caregiver does not feel safe being in the home with a firearm. How can I approach this with my mom so it does not become a huge argument?
A: You have touched on a very important issue that many families will face. Our population is aging, and people are living longer, which combined with the prevalence of dementia in our 85-plus population (the fastest growing sector) is a cause to address safety and the right to bear arms. Gun ownership often provides people with a sense of safety and independence, so taking that away can feel very threatening and create feelings of vulnerability. However, guns and dementia are a bad combination, and families should be proactive in removing firearms when they present a safety risk.
According to the National Alzheimer’s Association, the judgment, skills, memory, perception and reasoning that a person needs to safely operate a firearm decline as the dementia progresses, and training they once had can fade away. Those who are experiencing dementia also have difficulty with orientation and recall and may become fearful if they don’t immediately recognize the person (caregiver) in the home. If you combine this with the increased risk of depression, it is clear that any firearm can create an unsafe environment and safety risk for a person living with dementia.
The Department of Veterans Affairs also encourages families to “get rid of the guns” in a home where someone with dementia is living. How to do this can be the more challenging part of your question. The first suggestion is to have this conversation with your mom, before the disease progresses, and encourage her to voluntarily allow you to take the gun. You might want to have her physician or another family member present during the conversation for support. You can contact your local law enforcement agency, if you do not feel safe handling the gun. If there is still a great deal of resistance, here are some other suggestions:
- Remove all ammunition and make sure trigger guards are in place, then lock the gun in a fireproof safe or gun cabinet.
- Keep the keys for any safe, cabinet or trigger guard in a separate location where she cannot access them.
- Suggest that a family member she trusts store the gun for her.
- Have a family member that she trusts ask to “borrow” the gun and have your mom write herself a note that she has agreed to this.
- Insist that the gun needs to be serviced or cleaned by an outside service and offer to take it in for her.
- Remember to talk to your local law enforcement agency about the firearm removal or transfer, so that you can be sure to address the legalities of the process. It is a conversation as difficult as taking the car keys, but one that is necessary and equally dangerous if not addressed.
Readers may send questions to Natt, an Aging Life Care ProfessionalTM, certified senior advisor and CEO of Aging Outreach Services. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org