December 7, 2013

Gun culture meets Alzheimer’s with fatal results

A 72-year-old Georgia man who strayed from home is shot by a gun owner primed to fear an intruder.

By Ray Henry
The Associated Press

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. —The last walk that Ronald Westbrook took began as early as 1 a.m. when he slipped unnoticed from his North Georgia home with his two dogs.

click image to enlarge

A photo of Ret. Lt. Col. Ronald Westbrook sits on the coffee table in his home, Thursday, Dec. 5, in Chickamauga, Ga. His life ended when he wandered away from home, pounded on a stranger’s door and was shot and killed by the resident.

The Associated Press

It ended three hours later when Westbrook, a 72-year-old who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, knocked in the dark on a stranger’s door last month. Police said a man inside that home, 34-year-old Joe Hendrix, got a .40-caliber handgun, went outside to investigate and shot Westbrook in a horrible mistake.

The unlikely collision between two strangers – one deeply confused, another perceiving a threat in the dark – illustrates both the difficulties that caregivers face in keeping loved ones with Alzheimer’s safe and the consequences of miscalculation in a state that celebrates its gun culture.

Westbrook’s widow struggles to comprehend how she lost her husband of 51 years and discussed what happened in an interview in her house this week, sitting on her couch beside her Bible.

“I can’t imagine him feeling threatened by my husband, that’s what surprises me,” said Deanne Westbrook, 70. “Because Ron wasn’t like that. He probably, I think he was so cold. He was looking for help when he was ringing that doorbell at their place. I think he just wanted somebody to help him.”

Hendrix declined to comment because of the ongoing investigation. His attorney, Lee Davis, described his client as distraught. The local district attorney has not yet decided whether to press criminal charges against Hendrix for what happened on Nov. 27.

“He is not a gun-toting rights activist who’s saying, ‘Keep off my property,”’ Davis said. “He’s a man who thought he had to take action because of what he believed to be a real and imminent threat.”

A retired nurse who once cared for dementia patients in a nursing home, Westbrook’s wife was perhaps better equipped than most to care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s. The progressive disease results in memory loss, impairs judgment and can leave its victims disoriented.

She installed door alarms to alert her if her husband tried wandering away. She was already making plans to get more advanced care at home as the disease progressed.

“I don’t feel angry,” she said. “I just feel sad. I never would have thought he would’ve (come) to an end like this. I was prepared for the Alzheimer’s to get worse and for me to take care of him here. And I was going to do it.”

Others can sympathize. Marylou Hable, who works for A Place for Mom, helping match families with care and living facilities, said she works with Alzheimer’s patients and their families every day. Yet she still struggled when her husband’s uncle came to live with them.

She took all sorts of precautions to protect him, but one night he wandered out around 12:35 a.m. She and her husband were exhausted and didn’t hear the alarms. Alzheimer’s patients often seize on a past memory, and the uncle was trying to find the streetcar to go home to Cleveland, Ohio, even though he had moved to Michigan. He was beaten up and robbed, but luckily police contacted Hable and her husband when he turned up in the hospital.

“Here I am in the industry and I couldn’t keep John safe,” she said.

An incident in mid-November may have set the stage for the fatal error. Shortly after Hendrix’s fiancee moved into her new rental home, a man appeared at the door just before midnight on Nov. 19. He pounded on the door while Hendrix’s fiancee was alone with two children, and he demanded to see someone whom Hendrix’s fiancee did not know, Davis said.

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