"Stop or Mom Will Shoot!" Home Caregiver Issues: Guns and the Elderly

gun and bulletsGuns are a big part of the news cycle lately–with tragic shootings leading to discussions about gun control and rights.  More discussions are sure to come with Obama’s recently released executive orders regarding gun usage, particularly as it relates to doctors asking about gun ownership.

What you don’t hear a lot about…is guns and the elderly.  But, if you have worked as a home caregiver or helped families dealing with aging parent issues for a while, you know this is a vital (and complex) senior home safety issue to address.

A New York Times article, “Guns in Frail Hands” from 2010 addressed this issue, leading off with a story about the struggle between a 90 year old widow with Alzheimer’s Disease and her adult son over giving up “something she considers essential to her independence and sense of control”.  While the discussion sounds much like the one many adult children have with their aging parents over driving safety, it is increasingly one being had about guns.  As the 85 and older population grows rapidly, the issue of gun safety among the elderly is becoming a more common concern.  Most articles on this issue site a 2004 study indicating over 25% of people age 65 and older own guns (National Firearms Study of 2004), but a Gallup poll indicated slightly a higher number rate of 38%.

Things to consider about gun safety, the elderly and home caregivers:

Older white males are the highest risk group for suicide and the great majority of these are committed with guns.  A study conducted at the University of Rochester Medical Center indicated handguns as a major risk factor in older adult suicide.  Other issues are obviously at the heart of the cause for these suicides, but the presence of a gun provides the effective means (as well, the study showed that locked/unarmed guns tended to reduce the risk, possibly indicating an impulsivity factor).

Some of the biggest concerns about guns and the elderly come in when an elder is cognitively impaired.  The VA found, in a 2004 study, that 40% of veterans with mild to moderate dementia had guns in the home.  Alzheimer’s and other dementias affect exective functioning, complex thinking, reasoning and recall of skills.  Personality change often accompanies dementia, leading to paranoia, confusion, agitation, depression and potentially risky and impulsive behaviors.

Although there are stipulations within the federal Brady Bill barring gun sales to individuals who are “mentally defective”, that has little impact on this scenario.  First, most older adults already own the guns well prior to the cognitive problems.  Second, the process for legally having someone declared incompetent is a barrier–and sometimes more detrimental than helpful.

Guns in the home become a safety issue for both the individual (both in suicide and accidents) as well as for those coming in to the home.  As older adults become frail or face health concerns, more people providing services such as home caregivers tend to come in to the home.  There is a real risk to those coming in to the home, particularly when dementia or mental health issues exist.

Tips for dealing with concerns about gun safety for your aging parents:

1.  Begin a dialog about guns–sooner than later.  Make this part of the conversation about planning and concerns when a loved one is diagnosed with dementia.  Discuss the presence of guns in cases of depression as well, as related to suicide risk.  Do not wait until a problem arises.  Realize that as dementia progresses, the thinking and reasoning that may be needed both for the conversation as well as the safe handling of guns will diminish.

2.  Minimize risk by locking, unloading and storing guns safely.  Compromises to completely getting rid of the guns may include: storage in a locked gun vault at the home or off-site and  transferring gun ownership (i.e. adult children taking official possession of the guns; make sure to get information on the paperwork to be completed for this process).

3.  Find out policies of service providers such as home caregiver services, home health agencies, Meals on Wheels and others, regarding guns in the home.  They may refuse to send employees or volunteers in to the home if guns are present.  They may include the presence of guns in home safety assessments.  An elder may be required to get rid of guns in order to have the supportive services need to remain at home.

4.  Consider seeking out professional assistance.  A geriatric care manager may be able to help work with your family to mediate a discussion on this issue and find an acceptable solution.  If you are dealing with a situation where you feel the individual is incompetent and a danger, seek advice on the legal options.  Though these may be a last resort, in some cases they will be necessary.

5.  Find out options for safe and legal removal of guns.  Your loved one may choose to sell or consign guns, or contact your local sherriff’s department about how to dispose of guns.

For more important senior home safety and home caregiver issues, we invite you to sign up below to receive our monthly “Caregiver Tips”. 

If you need help with eldercare and senior home safety concerns, have questions about care options or need Clearwater home health care or Florida geriatric care management services, call us today at 727-448-0900 or let us know how we can help.

*Photo credit: Image courtesy of Surachai at FreeDigitalPhotos.net