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How families of gun owners with dementia grapple with safety

Editor's Note: It was incorrectly reported that Dr. Emmy Betz works at the University of Colorado Boulder; she works at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

By 2050 as many as 12 million people with dementia may live in homes with guns -- a fact that is prompting doctors, researchers and family members to ask how potential tragedies can be prevented. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, the intersection of guns and dementia.

    Around half of all Americans older than 65 live in a home with a firearm. And one in three senior citizens dies with some form of dementia. By one estimate, by 2050, as many as 12 million people with dementia may live in homes with guns.

    That is prompting doctors, researchers and family members to ask how to prevent a potential tragedy.

    John Yang reports on this.

    It's part of our partnership with Kaiser Health News.

  • 911 Operator:

    Nine-one-one. Where's your emergency?

  • Dee Hill:

    Hi. This is Dee Hill. My husband just accidentally shot me.

  • John Yang:

    Dee Hill, distress palpable in her voice, called 911 in May 2015.

  • 911 Operator:

    He shot you? OK, where are you injured at?

  • Dee Hill:

    In the stomach. He can't talk. Please.

  • 911 Operator:

    OK, stay with me. We're going to get you some help.

  • John Yang:

    Dee's husband, Darrell, was at her side, but unable to help.

    So, Dee, what happened that day?

  • Dee Hill:

    Well, to start with, this was a hospital bed, and he was in a wheelchair.

  • John Yang:

    Two years earlier, the former police chief, two-term sheriff and certified gun safety instructor was diagnosed with rapidly progressive dementia.

  • Dee Hill:

    He was always concerned about his guns.

  • John Yang:

    About a year before the shooting, Dee reluctantly took away his car keys. When he still insisted on driving, she sold the car. When he wanted to check on their guns, she locked them in their safe in a shed behind the house and changed the combination.

  • Dee Hill:

    He asked me every day, where are my guns? And I would tell him, they're in the safe. "Well, I want to see them."

    I would get him off on another subject. And that worked for a while, but then pretty soon he was just almost obsessive about seeing his guns.

  • John Yang:

    Like many with dementia, Darrell had good days and bad days. After Mother's Day, he was doing so well that Dee relented. She took out the revolver he used for target shooting and the Glock pistol he carried as a sheriff, checked to see if they were loaded, and placed them on the table in front of his wheelchair.

  • Dee Hill:

    He reached for the pouch that it was in, knocked it on the floor. I bent down to pick up the pouch. And just as I was coming up, I heard the gun go off.

  • John Yang:

    She had missed a round that had been left in the Glock's chamber. It was now lodged in Dee's back.

    Darrell's dementia was so advanced that he wasn't aware of what had just happened.

  • Dee Hill:

    He didn't realize the gun had gone off. It just didn't even faze him. And I convinced him. I asked him to get me the phone. And he said: "Why do you want the phone? Who are you going to call?"

    And I said, "Well, I'm going to call the ambulance."

    "Oh, OK."

  • JoNel Aleccia:

    He had like six or seven guns at that time?

  • Dee Hill:

    Yes.

  • JoNel Aleccia:

    Yes, OK.

  • John Yang:

    For months, Kaiser Health News reporter JoNel Aleccia has led a team looking into the deadly combination of guns and dementia, uncovering dozens of stories like Dee's from across the country, family members shot and even killed by loved ones suffering from dementia, as well as suicides by people with dementia, which experts consider an even bigger problem.

  • JoNel Aleccia:

    We have found reports of people who were sleeping, people with dementia sleeping with firearms under their pillows, and then having to have the guns taken away, because they were a danger to themselves or others.

  • John Yang:

    How widespread is this problem?

  • JoNel Aleccia:

    You know, the interesting thing is that no one really knows. But what we do know is that people older than 65, about 45 percent of them live in homes with guns. And we also know that about one in 10 people older than 65 has Alzheimer's disease.

    And so the trajectory of those two numbers shows that there could be some concerns going forward.

  • John Yang:

    In Dee Hill's case, it had near tragic results. She spent seven weeks in the hospital and had three operations.

  • Dee Hill:

    I lost a kidney, part of my stomach, my colon. The doctor said he took out everything but my gallbladder, and he wish he had done that.

  • John Yang:

    Darrell died a year after the shooting, never realizing, Dee says, what had happened.

  • Dee Hill:

    He knew I was hurt. He knew I was sick, but he didn't have a clue why. And I'm grateful for that.

  • John Yang:

    Families with both a gun and a loved one with dementia in the household can find themselves facing some tough choices without a lot of guidance. Some find themselves making it up as they go along.

    In Eastern Idaho, that's the approach Delmar and Verg Scroughams take as they try to avoid what happened to Dee Hill. Delmar is a retired homebuilder, known for his hobby restoring vintage carriages.

  • Verg Scroughams:

    "Of course, they did not see my gun and did not expect me to shoot."

  • John Yang:

    His dementia diagnosis came in 2013. Not long after, he decided on his own that he should stop driving. Verg began to worry about their guns as his condition worsened, and he showed signs of aggression, a common symptom of dementia.

  • Verg Scroughams:

    One night, he grabbed my arm. And if he could have got my left arm with my right arm held in his one hand, he would have hit me. I have no doubt he would have hit me. My husband in his right mind would never lift a hand against me. Never.

  • John Yang:

    And he wouldn't always recognize his wife of 45 years as he sat in his lounge chair beside a table where he kept a loaded pistol for protection.

  • Verg Scroughams:

    It's the only time it has happened that I woke him up out of a sleep and he says, "Well, who are you?" And I said, "Well, I'm your wife."

    And then I started thinking about it, that, if he didn't know who I was, I feel that, with those events happening, that it was safest to take the gun.

  • John Yang:

    Together, they agreed to sell or give away many of their guns, lock up the remaining rifles, and hide the revolver.

  • Delmar Scroughams:

    I got a disease that it's going to end up killing me, and, you know, I had a bad day, and I could hurt somebody.

  • John Yang:

    Was there anyone who was giving you advice, guidance on this, a doctor, or clergy?

  • Verg Scroughams:

    I never thought about the doctor bringing it up, because the doctor doesn't even know we have guns.

  • Dr. Emmy Betz:

    I think the role of physicians is really helping families be aware of the issues that are going to be coming.

  • John Yang:

    Dr. Emmy Betz is an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a co-founder of the Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition. She studies guns and dementia.

  • Dr. Emmy Betz:

    So, getting them thinking about all of the issues they need to address, so firearms, driving, home safety, access to power tools, and the kitchen and the gas stove, all those kinds of things.

  • John Yang:

    Betz says many physicians wrongly believe they're prohibited from asking their patients about firearms in the house.

  • Dr. Emmy Betz:

    Currently, there is no state or federal law that prohibits health care providers from talking to patients or asking about firearm access in the home. As a health care provider myself, I think it's really important.

  • John Yang:

    In fact, there are few laws across the nation that deal specifically with the problem of dementia and guns. No federal law that bars a person with dementia from owning guns, unless a court rules them incapacitated.

    And just two states specifically mention brain diseases in their gun laws. Hawaii prohibits someone with dementia from owning a gun. Texas simply prevents someone with a diagnosis from obtaining a public carry permit.

  • Dr. Emmy Betz:

    It really comes back to, this is something that families are dealing with. It's not currently something that's going to be fixed by policy.

  • John Yang:

    Eleven states currently have so-called red flag laws, allowing authorities to temporarily seize guns from people deemed dangerous, including those with dementia. At least six other states are considering similar legislation.

  • Verg Scroughams:

    We agreed in one of his more lucid moments that we should — that I should hide his loaded pistol.

  • John Yang:

    Verg Scroughams' advice? Talk about the guns soon after someone is diagnosed with dementia, so that the person plays a role in deciding what to do about them.

  • Verg Scroughams:

    Have these discussions and make these decisions before your loved one no longer knows anything, because that makes it more difficult. And it's more demeaning. I want to keep his dignity as long as we can, because I love him. He's my life.

  • Dee Hill:

    And that wedding dress was the only one I could find.

  • John Yang:

    Dee and Darrell Hill were married for 58 years. She felt she couldn't do anything with her husband's guns without his consent while he was alive, but his condition deteriorated so quickly that she never had that conversation.

    After Darrell died, she sold the guns. One is still waiting for the buyer to get a gun permit. She keeps it in the safe, along with the bullet that lodged in her back.

    Do you regret or have second thoughts about bringing the guns out that day?

  • Dee Hill:

    No. I mean, that sounds stupid, but, no, I don't. He spent darn near 40, almost 50 years in law enforcement, and a gun was always with him. And to deprive him of not even seeing them, in my heart of hearts, I couldn't deny him that, not any longer.

  • John Yang:

    It's a dilemma that more families across the country will find themselves facing.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in The Dalles, Oregon.

    This piece was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News. Read their in-depth report here.

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