Although the national conversation is fraught with emotional discussions about firearms and gun control, the pros and cons of gun ownership, in general, are not at debate here. The issue at hand is when gun ownership becomes unsafe for an elderly person. This is especially true for those who may be suffering from dementia and/or shaking, arthritic hands. It applies to those who can no longer handle or care for a firearm safely. When should Grannie or Grandad get their guns and hand them over for safe keeping?
Bringing up topics such as giving up driving or gun ownership is never comfortable. The process of aging can sometimes include surrendering previous responsibilities and activities, rather than embracing new opportunities. Some caregivers and the seniors they care for have to face such emotional questions as when it is time to take firearms out of the home? According to the American Journal of Public Health, over 17 million people 65 or older own a firearm. Therefore, it is an important discussion.
There are several important factors to consider in this discussion, and all have fairly equal weight. The first factor, however, carries the most weight. Is the elderly person physically able to maintain and safely use a firearm? If a senior has health issues that prevent him or her from properly cleaning, loading, firing, and storing a firearm, then the person likely should not continue to own one. This is because the person cannot properly use the gun for protection. The gun also no longer provides recreation. Firearms are a risk if they cannot be properly maintained, used, and stored. A neglected firearm could be stolen, broken, or even misfire and cause injury or death. If a senior is physically unable to maintain the safety of a firearm, it is time for it to go.
Mental and Cognitive Health
Seniors with dementia and their caregivers often avoid this discussion in the early stages of a disease which affects cognitive health. Yet it is vital to safety further down the road to ask: “What should we do with the guns if you become confused, hostile, paranoid, or even aggressive?”
Seniors with dementia and similar cognitive impairments, even depression or anxiety, can use guns to harm themselves or others. In fact, 2014 saw five thousand people over 65 using a gun to commit suicide. This is a tragic statistic that might have been lower if there was no access to a gun. Someone with Alzheimer’s, who may struggle to complete simple tasks, or who may even suffer from hallucinations, is at risk for confusing a caregiver for an intruder. He or she may mistake a gun for a remote control, resulting in injury or death. It is better to make this decision early on, with the cooperation of the senior—and to monitor future purchases. One family removed the gun from the home of a man with dementia only to have him go out and buy another one when he was confused.
Talking with a doctor about when the true turning point is may be the best course of action. Involving a general physician and a neurologist in the discussion, as well as the senior in care, may make the risks and dangers clear. It is also important to talk frankly about the mental health risks that come with dementia and cognitive disorders. Seniors whose mental and physical health are under control might be able to keep their guns longer. Those with depression, anxiety, mood disorders, or schizophrenia may not.
Firearms – Culture and Personality
America is a gun-loving culture. Many seniors and younger Americans find joy and entertainment in the purchase. They enjoy the maintenance and use of firearms for reasons other than self-defense. Some collect rare guns used in significant battles or time epochs. Some people identify the ownership and use of guns as patriotic and part of the American ideal. Indeed, gun ownership is a constitutional right. Such people may find giving up their guns because of age issues difficult.
It may be that a senior cannot safely own firearms, but that does not mean that he or she cannot visit a shooting range or hunting under supervision or with help. Seniors can attend gun shows or spend time researching firearms in a museum or online.
Location, Location, Location
Gun ownership is not always about identity, culture, political beliefs, or even hobbies. Sometimes gun ownership is about self-defense and/or practicality. Seniors using guns for self-defense may find that, as they age, they are becoming less likely to be victims of random acts of violence because of their living situation. They are more likely to be neglected by a nursing home attendant then robbed at gunpoint downtown. This makes a firearm less and less useful as years go by. Seniors may also find that new security systems or high standards in long-term care facilities make self-defense a non-issue. It is also true that seniors in the care of other adults, either at home or in a facility, may find that hunting for food (the most practical use of a firearm) is unnecessary and a thing of the past.
Overall, the key point is safety. Experts agree that removing guns when safety is at stake is always the best option. A healthier and more productive relationship with a senior will result if caregivers/family members and the senior agree together on the removal of guns from the senior’s household. Involving a counselor or physician may help navigate these troubled waters, but most reasonable seniors will understand that the goal is safety, first and always.
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