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With Dementia Comes Tough Decisions, Including What To Do About Guns. A New Website Could Help.

The Pew Research Center estimates that almost half of Americans over the age of 65 live in a household with firearms.
Cristian Neuman
The Pew Research Center estimates that almost half of Americans over the age of 65 live in a household with firearms.

Colorado researchers launched a website Tuesday to help people make difficult decisions about living with dementia. An estimated 5 million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. 

Driving and home safety tend to dominate discussions around safety. But what’s less talked about, as NPR has reported, “is the risk of guns in the home for those with dementia. That's a growing problem, as theU.S. population gets older and the number of people with dementia soars.”

According to a 2017 report from the Pew Research Center, 33% of people over the age of 65 own a gun and another 12% live with someone who does, meaning that almost half of people over 65 live in households where firearms are present.

The new online resource, Safety in Dementia, is intended to help caregivers — or, if possible, people in the early stages of dementia — plan for the future before the illness progresses to the point where, for example, a person with Alzheimer’s disease mistakes their spouse for an intruder and reaches for a firearm. 

“It’s not the person, it’s the disease,” said Dr. Emmy Betz, one of the researchers who created the website. Betz is an emergency room doctor and a public health researcher at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. 

“Someone could have been an expert racecar driver or a marksman or hunter their whole lives,” Betz said. “But the disease can change people and make it so that they’re no longer safe to do the things they’ve always done. And that can be hard for families to work through. The intent of this was to help families think about what are some of the things to watch out for and then what are some of the things you can do.”

For example, if a person with dementia feels anxious when they can’t access their firearms, the website suggests disassembling or disabling the weapon. Possible solutions for other scenarios include storing firearms at a shooting range, or having a family member or friend take them.

“In Colorado, you can legally transfer a firearm to any immediate family member with no background check — so your kids, your parents, your spouse,” said Betz. Other states require background checks for any firearm transfer. 

A recent study looking at patients visiting a memory clinic in Ohio found that, out of 380 patients diagnosed with dementia, 63 reported having a firearm in their home. As the authors wrote, many of those people had experienced delusions or hallucinations, often of “paranoid or hostile quality.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Copyright 2021 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
Rae Ellen Bichell
I cover the Rocky Mountain West, with a focus on land and water management, growth in the expanding west, issues facing the rural west, and western culture and heritage. I joined KUNC in January 2018 as part of a new regional collaboration between stations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Please send along your thoughts/ideas/questions!
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