When Elders Keep Guns at Home: Assessing Safety Risks

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Gun ownership is not only one of the most politically sensitive topics this election season. It’s also a question that is frequently asked when Aging Life Care Managers™ conduct an assessment of a new client. Unsecured firearms, sometimes combined with a variety of diagnoses, are a safety concern of many professionals.

This past July, the Aging Life Care Association™ (ALCA) surveyed members to find out how many include questions about firearms when interviewing prospective clients, and, if so, how that affected their providing services in the home.

ALCA does not take a position on guns or gun ownership. As a professional society, their purpose is to provide education, networking and professional development to their members.

Firearms Ownership an Important Factor in Home Assessments

Fully 50 percent of those surveyed (141 of 282) said they include a question in their assessment regarding the presence of firearms. Some respondents said it was their employer’s requirement to ask this question; others said knowledge of firearms in the home was as important as knowing about the client’s driving ability, medications, alcohol or tobacco use, or potential sources of elder abuse. Many commented that they have not asked the question in the past, but will in the future. In addition,

  • 52 percent require that firearms are securely locked up;
  • 10 percent require that firearms be removed;
  • 1 percent decline to provide services if firearms are present.

Safety Risks Depend on Individual Circumstances

Further findings show:

  • The majority of Aging Life Care Professionals™ found the frequency of guns in the house “Very Rarely” (31.2 percent) or “Sometimes” (27.2 percent).
  • The biggest threats to firearm safety in the home included diagnoses of dementia, depression, PTSD or mental illness of any kind.
  • Most respondents said if there are firearms in the house, they require that guns are securely locked up (52 percent).
  • A very few (less than 1 percent) felt it was not appropriate to ask clients about gun ownership.

Overwhelmingly, respondents said they had to evaluate the safety implications of guns in the house on a case-by-case basis, citing cognitive functioning, medications, diagnoses, family dynamics, etc.

Certain Diagnoses May Increase Suicide Risks If Firearms Are Present

Several respondents recounted stories of suicides by clients that took place while professional caregivers were in the home. Said one, “I had a client commit suicide after the family said all firearms were removed from the house. He had one hidden. He was terminal with brain cancer with metastasis.” A similar circumstance was described by another care manager as “one of the worst days of my life.”

Conversations about gun ownership can also open new doors in a client-care manager relationship. Said one care manager, “Discussing firearms, hunting stories and war stories involving the use of firearms is a great way to bond with your client.”

As the survey found, certain diagnoses can result in a dangerous environment both for the client and those working in the home. And even with professional supervision, mistakes can be made. One respondent described this case:

“Client 92, former military. Family felt guns were out of the house. Professional guardian (former military herself) conducted detailed search of the home after appointed and assured me that there were no weapons in home. The client threatened to shoot the night caregiver but never produced a gun. However, while filling medication boxes and securing extra meds in a lockbox in a spare room, I found a handgun. Now I always assume there could be a weapon even if I am told there is not one.”

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care™ manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsALCM.

Image Credit: Ontanu Mihai

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