Lloyd Bates worked in construction almost all his life.
That’s why it came as a surprise to his wife, Carol, when the day came that he couldn’t remember the basics of carpentry. Being that he’s blind in one eye and partially losing his hearing, she wrote most of Lloyd’s missteps off as aging.
“He couldn’t figure out how to put plugs in drywall. He couldn’t see to put them in,” Carol said. “I attributed a lot of what was happening to his inability to see.”
Lloyd, 87, laughs as she explains that, describing himself as an old hound dog.
Eventually, it was Carol who realized she was the one who didn’t see the issue: her husband had dementia.
“I think I was in denial because I didn’t want to see it,” she said.
Carol also noticed her husband would get confused about where they were going or what city they were in. Sometimes, he would ask the same question around a dozen times in a span of 15 minutes.
The changes weren’t lost on Lloyd, either.
“It concerned me,” he said. “At times, I wondered if I was thinking as I should.”
Three years ago, he got the formal diagnosis. As the Denver couple started to come to terms with a future they were hoping wasn’t theirs, a caregiver helped them come to another realization.
“Do you know Lloyd has a gun in his nightstand?” said Carol, recalling the conversation. “And I said, ‘yes.’ I said, ‘he used to be a deputy sheriff, and he always has his gun right there.’”
Lloyd spent a decade with the Adams County Mounted Sheriff’s Posse, working for two of those years as captain. The Naval Air veteran also served in the Korean War. But the caregiver told them that a gun next to the bed wasn’t a good idea, given Lloyd’s state of mind.
Carol started thinking about the situation and looking into the facts. That’s when she realized her husband could get confused at night when she got up to go to the bathroom, or turn down the heat, and he might not recognize her.
“That’s when we decided to lock them up,” said Carol.
At first, Lloyd said he didn’t think this was necessary but eventually told Carol to do what she thought was best for their safety. The guns have been in a safe for the last three years.
A decision like this is hardly isolated to the Bateses. Emmy Betz, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, said more people with dementia in their families should consider having conversations about it early on.
Betz worked with her colleagues to come up with a letter (found here) that families can use ahead of time. It would serve as a written agreement between loved ones and someone diagnosed with dementia, acknowledging there could be a time when it’s no longer safe for them to access a firearm and designate someone to step in at that time.
“This paper can sort of be a conversation starter,” said Betz.
She believes that if the conversation is had sooner rather than later, someone living with dementia may be able to make decisions for themselves and let this agreement serve as a reminder down the line.
Both Betz and Joleen Sussman, a board certified Gero Psychologist working with dementia patients at the VA Medical Center in Denver, said a decision around firearms can include multiple options.
- Removing firearms from the home.
- Removing ammunition from the home.
- Disabling the firearm.
- Locking up the firearm and make sure the person with dementia doesn’t have access to the code.
- Making sure the firearm is with a family member who can keep it secure.
Both experts also said to remember some people may be more attached to their guns or feel a decision like this is eating away at their independence, emphasizing how important it is to be respectful to the person who is being asked to let something go.
For the Bateses, both knew theirs was the right decision for them. They said a decision like this can protect someone from themselves.
“You need to get them so they’re not accessible. They need to [be] put someplace where they have no idea they’re there, or they won’t stumble into them or something,” Lloyd said.
The Alzheimer’s Association has a 24/7 helpline people can call if they have questions (1-800-272-3900). People can also talk to their primary care provider and ask for a social worker or someone who specializes in dementia care.
The local VA has provided the help for Lloyd and Carol, who have been married 14 years and counting.
“That’s why we needed mental health help, too,” she jokes. “We wanted this one to work.”