Guns and Alzheimers Don't Mix: Removing Weapons from Loved Ones' Possession

Patient Expert

Hunting season is right around the corner - which brings me to one of the topics I had never considered in relation to caregiving for a loved one with Alzheimer's.   Last year, a Alzheimer's community member asked about how to deal with her father's gun collection. Her father, who has Alzheimer's, would get very angry when the family would address the possibility of removing the weapons or putting them in the gun safe. Instead, the father would hide the guns around the house. And needless to say, the weapons made the family feel unsafe.

It turns out that this issue is not unique.   A recent New York Times story by Dale Russakoff described how a 90-year-old widow who had mild Alzheimer's refused her son's request to give up a loaded .38-caliber handgun that she had in kept in her dresser at her retirement community. Russakoff noted that a 2004 National Firearms Survey found that more than 25% of people ages 65 and older own guns. That same year, the Veterans Health Administration found that 40 percent of veterans with mild to moderate dementia had a gun in their homes. The reporter wrote only 11 states require license to buy a gun "so it is difficult to impose restrictions, as states do for driving, based on age or impairment in places where gun ownership is highest." And although the federal Brady Act bars sun sales to people found legally to be mentally unsound, Russakoff found that few children want to go through the legal process. Additionally most older people have bought their guns many years ago so authorities aren't able to identify who has a gun.

So if you happen to find yourself in this situation, how should you deal with it?

"First and foremost, it is crucial to find and remove all of the guns from the household," the Alzheimer's Foundation of America's representative wrote in response to the reader's question. "Once this is done, there are behavioral interventions that you can try if conversation about the guns is raised by your father or if he exhibits behavioral challenges. If your father asks where they are, it is important to stay calm and redirect the conversation.   If your father is angry about the removal of the guns, validate your father's loss of independence by stating,   'Dad, I know you are angry but we are concerned for your safety.   Why don't we go get a drink and relax.'   Redirecting him to another room or conversation can help diffuse the situation.   There is no doubt that this will be a difficult decision for your father to cope with, but you can help him get through it with support and encouragement. If behavioral challenges arise that you cannot handle, it is important to discuss them with your father's healthcare professional."

A friend of mine who has guns also noted that guns can be professionally made inoperable without damaging the weapon through removal of firing pins.

Needless to say, caregivers need to be careful in trying to remove guns from a loved one with Alzheimer's. But taking this step - much like taking away car keys - becomes a necessity as the disease progresses and changes the loved one's mental state.