Dementia Patients and Their Hurtful Lies

When a person succumbs to any form of dementia, it is hard on family and friends. It is difficult to see the diminished capacity of a loved one and the unbearable frustration it brings. However, one of the worst things we have to cope with is the fact that this person has a flawed memory, and this flawed memory can cause them to tell others terrible things about us, simply because their brain isn't working correctly. No matter how far-fetched their stories and accusations may be, to them, what they are saying is true.

Have you ever looked for something you are sure you left in a particular spot and found it missing? Most of us have. Sometimes, we even wonder if someone in the family moved the object, since we are so sure we left it in that spot. Later, we find the missing object, and then it immediately clicks when and why we moved it. Hopefully, we did not actually confront a family member for "messing with our stuff," and our minds are presumably normal.

Short-Term Memory Loss Could Be to Blame

Imagine someone who has diminished short-term memory capacity; the person places an object somewhere, and then wanders off to do something. Later, this person cannot find what he or she is looking for. Anxiety, frustration and a sense of loss accompany most dementias. Add paranoia to the list, and you have got a scenario where the elder feels vulnerable and taken advantage of. This causes them to lean toward thinking people are stealing their things.

Unfortunately, there are many instances where people have taken advantage of someone with diminished mental capacity. This is a terrible fact of life. However, there are also many instances where the individual specifically asks a caregiver or family member to launder a piece of clothing, repair an object, or purchase something for them using cash they provide, and then they orget that they not only gave permission, they actually requested that the caregiver do this. When they discover an object or money is missing, accusations can fly.

If it Weren't so Sad, it Might be Funny

The community is populated with stressed caregivers who are experiencing this problem. Even when they are just washing the care receiver's clothes or getting their groceries, they can be faced with accusations of stealing.

I remember the last year of my mother's life when she accused me, behind my back to the nursing home housekeeper, of taking her clothes from her so I could wear them to work. It was funny in its own way, but painful that my mother really thought I was capable of this.

What I was doing was the same thing I'd done for years. I was taking her out-of-season clothes from her closet and replacing them with season appropriate clothing, including some fresh items. We had done this little switch-out for years, and it had been fun. But that last year, it was sad.

How to Handle When They Tell Lies

Then, there are abuse issues. Again, there are horrible incidents of physical elder abuse. The worst ones make the news, but many go undetected or unreported.

However, many people are accused of abusing their loved one because the person with dementia has lost the ability to connect with reality.

When the caregiver tries to wash the elder, change their clothes, or even take them in the car for an appointment, they have been known to scream out, seemingly in pain or fear. The person is not doing this to cause trouble. They are frightened. They may believe they are being touched inappropriately during bathing or dressing or they may be scared because they do not know where your are taking them or why.

I cannot stress strongly enough that I am perfectly aware of very real elder abuse. But I do know, from personal stories I've been told and the forum, that caregivers are often the target of accusations from the very people they are giving up much of their lives to care for. This is happening because the person with failing memory cannot make sense out of his or her environment. They are not trying to cause trouble. They simply can no longer make sense out of life and its daily activities.

How to Cope

  • Communicate with and find support from a third party, whether it's a spiritual leader, another family member, nursing home staff or an old friend of your elder's.
  • Call the Alzheimer's Association for guidance, as they see this often and have trained counselors to guide you through these situations.
  • Get out financial records if the accusations are financial (they often are). Keep meticulous records from the start, but have them ready to show to the person who is accusing you.
  • Consult with an elder law attorney if necessary. This is extreme, but sometimes caregivers do wind up needing legal counsel if the accusations are serious enough.
  • If you have siblings or others who believe the accuser and not you, you may want to consider working with a family mediator.

Often, these accusations are transient, and the individual eventually forgets the incident. It is hard for the caregiver to forget that he or she has been accused of stealing or harming someone they love, but this is a time when we must remember that the person is sick. A great amount of tolerance and patience is needed in these situations. These and other behaviors are brought on by the disease. However, sometimes we have to protect ourselves. When that happens, make sure you seek proper help and guidance.

Carol Bradley Bursack

Follow this author

Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

Visit Minding Our Elders

View full profile

You May Also Like See all guides >

Veterans' Benefits

Find federal benefits available to your family.

Home Care

How to find, hire and manage home care.

Caregivers' Survival

Everything you need to care for an elderly family member.

Get the latest care advice and articles delivered to your inbox!