By Kathy A. Miller
As the number of Americans with Alzheimer's disease rises steadily, families are forced to have difficult discussions about the delicate balance between personal safety and independence.
Releasing personal autonomy is difficult, and for those families that have a long-standing tradition of gun ownership, these conversations can be difficult. Access to firearms, like driving a car, can pose a significant risk of injury or death for people with cognitive impairment and their families.
But convincing a person with dementia that it's time to give up the weapons they've trusted to protect their home and family can be a difficult business. Gun ownership is a politically charged problem, and a person who is struggling to maintain his independence may see attempts to remove firearms from his home as an attack on his or her legal rights.
Yet the danger of firearms in the hands of a person with dementia can not be underestimated. Not only do seniors have the highest number of suicides of any part of the population, rifles are the most common – and the most fatal – suicide method.
Moreover, individuals with Alzheimer's disease often experience episodes of aggressive behavior as an element of delusion or hallucination, making them more inclined to use a weapon on a caretaker or another loved one.
Unfortunately, by the time a family realizes that their loved one is a danger to themselves or others, it is often too late to engage in a meaningful discussion.
Pre-planning, for some families, offers a solution, and at least a starting point for an open conversation. Some experts propose to prepare an agreement for a family firearm; a kind of declaration of will for weapons.
The document is essentially a simple agreement, in which the signatory acknowledges that as long as he or she wants to keep access to firearms as long as possible, the time has come when they can no longer make sound decisions for the safety of their family or themselves.
Although the document is not legally binding, it offers an opportunity to address the problem, while it is still possible to involve the older adult in the decision. Similarly, a firearm trust, which is in fact legally binding, allows a firearm owner to preserve the use of firearms until a disability (such as dementia) or death leads to the transfer of property to the other trustees mentioned in the agreement.
Of course, these solutions are only effective in the event that the owner of the gun agrees with the conditions of the document.
Many weapon fanatics claim that the constitution protects their right to firearms, and they do not consider this right to be negotiable.
Eliminating this instinctive resistance to what they consider to be a violation of their rights takes planning and tact, especially when the family is forced to take action after their loved one has started to show signs of limitation.
Unfortunately, the disease itself can make it difficult to negotiate about removing weapons from the house.
As Alzheimer's progresses, many people remain convinced that they are simply not affected. This is not a denial, but a symptom of the disease called anosognosia. Because they do not believe that something is wrong with them, it can be almost impossible to convince them that their surrender of their weapons is in their interest.
Some states have & # 39; red flag laws & # 39; that allows family members or law enforcement officers to seek judicial seizure of firearms from individuals who are determined to be dangerous, but this can be difficult to achieve and should be considered as a last resort.
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive disease that affects brain function. As the disease progresses, reassessing safety issues becomes a full-time job. It may not be clear at what time an individual would no longer have access to weapons, so it may be wise to address the problem before it becomes a clear threat.
Weapon safety requires the ability to think clearly and as soon as it is even marginally affected, the danger increases exponentially.
A diagnosis of dementia may be sufficient to ensure the removal of weapons from the home to ensure the safety of all involved.
Miller is coordinator caregiver for LTCA of Enid Area Agency on Aging.