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New Doucette research: 'Firearms, Dementia, and the Clinician'

Published on May 21, 2020

New Doucette research: 'Firearms, Dementia, and the Clinician'

Mitch Doucette

Five years ago, USA Today reported on a 75-year-old woman in Oregon who called the 911 dispatcher begging for help after her husband of 57 years accidentally shot her in the stomach. Her husband, suffering from dementia, sat in a wheelchair holding the gun, not realizing what he had done or why. Unable to remember, he could not talk. Fortunately, the wife survived after 30 pints of blood, three surgeries and seven weeks in the hospital.

Nearly 10 percent of Americans 65 and older have dementia — nearly six million Americans. That number is expected to triple by 2050. Research suggests that around 60 percent of persons with dementia own a firearm.

Not much is known on how to prevent people with mental illness from buying guns. Mitchell Doucette, an assistant professor of health sciences at Eastern Connecticut State University, says there are also few resources that physicians and other health care providers can use to guide firearm safety conversations. Along with other scholars, Doucette has recently published research on a counseling protocol that healthcare providers can use with dementia patients to enhance firearm safety.

The article, “Firearms, Dementia, and the Clinician: Development of a Safety Counseling Protocol,” appeared in the May 1, 2020, issue of the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, and was co-authored by Harrison Dayton, Garry Lapidus, Kevin Borrup, and Brendan Campbell.

“In public health, our primary goal is to prevent disease and illness,” said Doucette. “Having dementia is itself a risk factor for suicide and unintentional injuries. Increasing meaningful and respectful conversations between firearm owners and their physicians around safe firearm storage can prevent a person with dementia from using their firearm against a love one or a caregiver in a confused state. It can prevent a child or teenager from using the firearm accidentally. It can also prevent the person with dementia from using it on them self.”

Doucette said the research shows the importance of a doctor engaging older persons on firearm safety. “Physicians are a trusted source of both health and wellness information. We know that when a physician talks with their patients about safety issues, it can have meaningful results. We used previously published guidelines and recommendations to generate a usable tool for health care providers, which could assess a person with dementia’s risk for firearm injury and provide useable safety messages based on a patient’s risk profile.”

Doucette said physicians will be able to increase the frequency and robustness of their firearm safety counseling for persons with dementia and their families as well. “For example, in advanced dementia stages, where the person with dementia displays episodes of agitation and combativeness, it is recommended that physicians counsel the patient’s family members on ways to legally transfer a firearm to another firearm owner in the family or replace all ammunition with blanks.”

Written by Dwight Bachman