Seniors With Depression, Dementia Still Have Access To Guns

By Kelly Burch 04/22/19

A new study found that 16% of senior Americans with symptoms of mental illness had access to guns at home. 

Seniors With Depression, Dementia

Seniors with symptoms of depression and dementia have access to firearms at similar rates to the overall population, suggesting that safety measures to keep guns out of the hands of people who may be a danger to themselves or others are falling short. 

A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine asked people about their gun ownership, safe storage practices, and symptoms of dementia or depression. The study found that homes with and without guns had similar rates of people living with depression or dementia.

For example, 16% of seniors who lived in homes with guns had a depression diagnosis—compared with 18% of seniors with a depression diagnosis who lived in homes without guns. 

Epidemiologist Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, who worked on the study, said that researchers would expect to see more safe storage and less gun ownership among seniors with depression or dementia, since these conditions can put people at risk for gun violence, either to themselves or others. 

"If we were doing a good job in promoting gun safety, you would expect that the prevalence of living in a home with a gun or unsafe storage would be lower when somebody's experiencing dementia or suicide risk factors, right?" he told Pacific Standard. He said the lack of any difference "indicates that many of the guidelines or recommendations so far have fallen short and we need to be much more active about promoting firearms safety."

Men who are 65 and older have the greatest rate of suicide and most often use firearms to commit suicide, so it is imperative that seniors who are depressed do not have easy access to firearms. 

In addition, people with dementia sometimes threaten people with firearms because they get confused and believe family members or healthcare providers are intruders in their home.

Last year Kaiser Health News reported on the concerning trend, citing more than 100 cases where people with dementia had injured themselves or someone else with a gun. 

The Kaiser report found that despite the fact that 9% of people older than 65 have dementia, few families are having conversations about gun safety with their ill relatives. 

Dee Hill’s husband had spent a lifetime working in law enforcement and was opposed to giving up access to firearms even when he was diagnosed with dementia. 

“He was just almost obsessive about seeing his guns,” Hill said. One day, when Hill showed her husband his gun, he accidentally shot her.

Hill said that she knows the shooting was an accident, but people in favor of tighter regulation say that families need to discuss gun safety and put a plan in action for disabled relatives, just as they would for relatives who are no longer able to drive safely.

“My concern [had been] that someone was going to get hurt,” Hill said. “I didn’t in my wildest dreams think it was going to be me.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.