Surely We Can All Agree Dementia Patients Shouldn’t Have Guns


Years ago, when I was writing a book about Alzheimer’s disease, many of the family members and caregivers with whom I spoke told me that one of the hardest accommodations involved in the disease was to convince the patient to give up the car keys. Maybe it’s because driving a car has come to mean so much about being an American, that it’s so much a part of our identity growing up and that it is the very definition of being an adult in this country. Meanwhile, it’s an acknowledgement by the family that the patient is gradually becoming someone other than the person they knew. Whatever the reason, the decision to surrender the keys is hard on everyone involved.

(For what it’s worth, my father’s disease first became critical when he drove to the flower store in our town in Massachusetts and ended up in Montpelier, Vermont. He gave up his car keys with no resistance at all. Truth be told, I think he was glad to be rid of them.)

However, during the course of my research, I met a woman named Lisa Gwyther, a social worker attached to the Alzheimer’s and related illness unit at the Duke Medical Center in North Carolina. Part of her work was outreach to Alzheimer’s patients who lived way up in the hills and mountains in the western part of North Carolina. She told me that getting the car keys away from the patients was not the worst part of that job.

“It’s getting them to give up the shotgun,” she said. The idea of being confronted by a symptomatic Alzheimer’s patient brandishing a firearm with only a clipboard and good intentions to protect you is a chilling prospect for anyone who’s looked the disease full in the face.

“It’s getting them to give up the shotgun.”

Recently, Kaiser Health News published the results of its four-month investigation into the intersection of dementia patients and firearms. To call the report alarming is to understate it badly. To call the report tragic is to minimize its inherent horror.

Here’s the worst statistic of all.

Because freedom, I guess, although it’s hard to see Dee Hill’s story as having anything to do with being free.

Surely, even the most devoted of gun obsessives must concede that having armed dementia patients is lunatic public policy, right?

Are you kidding? Because…freedom!

Pray tell us, Dr. Prezbinda, how much “science” do you need to have to conclude that Grandpa, who now thinks Grandma is a thief who is stealing his money, really ought not to have a Glock with which to live out his delusions? Hippocrates is going to come down from Olympus and slap you silly.

One of my lasting memories of my father before his illness transformed him is of him sitting at our kitchen table. Somehow, he had come into possession of the service revolver carried by his father, a detective sergeant with the Worcester Police Department. He and his four siblings were raised with a healthy respect and fear of ever going near Pa’s gun, which was locked away after every shift in a box on the mantelpiece.

My father sat at the table, methodically taking the revolver apart, piece by piece, and putting each couple of pieces into their own small plastic bag. He then drove to three different town dumps, tossing some of the bags containing the disassembled firearms into each of them, so that nobody ever would be able to put the gun back together again. (He used to joke that, if a gun wasn’t bolted to the deck of a ship, he didn’t want any part of one.) Later in his life, as he faded into the disease, I was happy he’d done that. It only made sense.