Armed and aging: A conversation about seniors, dementia and the right to bear arms

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DENVER -- For Renee Markovchick, the daughter of a 94-year-old WWII Veteran, the difficult conversation about guns started with concerns about her father's safety.

"He feels like he knows how to handle guns, and has moderate Alzheimer's disease," said Markovchick. "He's lived a good long life, but, you know, I don't want him to take it."

She had good reason to worry. To give some context, a University of Colorado Medical School study just released Monday finds the number of adults with Alzheimer's and dementia is steadily increasing, but questions around their access to firearms remain largely unaddressed.

The study finds firearms are the most common method of suicide among people with dementia, but it explores other serious concerns with firearm possession and dementia. People with dementia can experience hallucinations, delusions, aggression and paranoia, and the study's lead author, Dr. Emmy Betz with the University of Colorado School of Medicine, found many older adults have access to guns.

"Up to 45 percent of older adults live in a home with a firearm," said Betz, who said healthcare providers need to be more aware of the issue. "As with driving, the message here is not we should take all the guns away from older people. I think what we're saying is with time, with cognitive changes, people lose their ability to do things they once could do and we should help them prepare for those changes."

In the Denver metro, many law enforcement officers get specialized training to deal with growing numbers of people with dementia who have guns.

"One out of nine people 65 and older have dementia," said Jim Lorentz, a Wheat Ridge Police division chief who has trained thousands of local first responders for "persons with dementia." "With a growing population of people experiencing dementia, it's going to be more and more of a problem." 

While his primary concern is suicide or gun accidents, he said officers have to be aware of other common issues.

"Sometimes people with dementia don't recognize their loved ones," said Lorentz. "So if a gun is available to a person in that condition, that's very dangerous to the public."

Lorentz said just like handing over the keys for safety, people need to have conversations about handing over the guns. Caregivers could also reduce risks by removing ammunition from the home, storing firearms unloaded or disabling the trigger mechanism.

But on the other side, just like with Colorado's proposed "red flag law," allowing police to take guns from those considered a danger to themselves or others, some gun owners are worried about their rights.

"It is a little bit different than with driving, because driving is a privilege, it's not a right," said Matthew Jones, a Lakewood gun owner. "And the Second Amendment, owning a firearm, is a right. So, unless you can be proven unfit in a court of law, I don't believe anyone should be able to take that right away."

The University of Colorado study notes that about 89 percent of Americans support limiting firearm purchases and access to those with a mental illness.

"As the disease progresses, a person may misperceive danger," said Danelle Hubbard, the Family Services Director with the Colorado Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. Hubbard said her agency provides resources for families, such as a firearm plan and talking points. Most importantly, she said, it's important to have the discussion early on.

"It allows a person living with dementia to have a choice and a voice," said Hubbard. 

For many, though, just like driving, guns represent a form of independence.

That was the case for Markovchick's father, who resisted her efforts to have a discussion.

"He's always been an independent and strong person, strong-willed, stubborn. And he really didn't want to talk about it because he's going to live the way he wants to live kind of thing," she said.

So, she quietly removed several guns from the home, and she has no regrets. 

"I just thought this was the safest way to get them out of the house, and this way no harm will come to anyone," she said. "I think he's more or less OK with it now."

The Alzheimer's Association says if a conversation about removing guns from the home is not possible due to progression of the disease or lack of good judgment, it is important that family members take action to address the concern. The following are some tips from the Alzheimer’s Association for dealing with firearms in the home:

  • The best option is removing weapons from the home BEFORE there is a major concern.
  • All guns in the home should be stored separately from ammunition in a secure, locked case or firearm vault.
  • The person with disease should not have unsupervised access to firearms.
  • If there are guns in the home, any adult in the home must make it a priority to learn proper and safe handling of guns. Women are often afraid to touch their husband’s guns, even just to remove them, because they are unfamiliar.
  • Consider having an adult child, neighbor or friend “borrow” or “store” the guns permanently. There is special paperwork to be completed to legally transfer gun ownership, which a licensed dealer can assist you with.
  • Have the guns leave the house for “professional cleaning.”
  • Have the trigger mechanism professionally disabled. Be aware, however, that this could still present risk if law enforcement ever is called to respond to a situation at the home. Police must act with the belief that the gun is operational.
  • Go through a licensed firearm dealer to place the guns on consignment.
  • If you are afraid to handle the gun, contact local law enforcement. The police will come out and retrieve the gun and destroy it. They may ask to see a statement of diagnosis from a physician.
  • If you have no other option, put the unloaded gun in the trunk of your car and drive to the police department. Leave the gun in the trunk and go inside the station and tell the front desk that you have a firearm you would like to turn in for destruction due to a loved one having dementia. They also may request a statement of diagnosis. An officer will escort you to the vehicle to retrieve the weapon and ammunition.
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