A Dementia Patient's Truth vs. a Caregiver's Reality


The truth, as they see it, is still the truth in their eyes. Delusions, hallucinations, agitation, aggression and depression are all part of the gradual progression of psychosis of patients with Alzheimer ’s disease (AD). An average of 41% of these patients will experience these psychotic symptoms. One of the most common delusions these patients have are theft-related. An experienced caregiver offers her advice on how to deal with accusations of theft, which are common in dementia patients.

"She took my sweater!" Victoria says. "I saw her. She stole it! That woman took the sweater my mother made for me!"

But did someone actually steal Victoria's sweater, or is dementia stealing her mind? Victoria, the lady ranting about her sweater, was sitting in her wheelchair. I had offered to take her down to the nursing home's main dining room on my way to sit with my mother-in-law. I was familiar with Victoria, a resident at my mother-in-law's facility. Once she was finished eating, she would order me (or anyone nearby) to take her out of the dining room and place her in a certain spot in the sitting room. This spot was an exact number of inches away from the end table. This positioning was vitally important to her and she liked me, since I knew precisely where that spot was.

Victoria also had a thing about her red sweater. Even though she claimed it was a handmade heirloom, it was obviously purchased at a store. The tag was still on it, even though it was faded. She wore the sweater daily until a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) would finally tell her enough was enough. She would be told that the sweater was getting washed and it would be returned the next day. Victoria had a closet full of sweaters, but that did not matter. She wanted her red one. That red one. Anyone who took anything away from Victoria was a thief in her mind.

Theft, Paranoia or Forgetfulness?

People with dementia often get paranoid about their personal belongings being stolen. There is a reason behind some of this behavior. They feel vulnerable, especially in the stages of Alzheimer's or dementia where they realize that they cannot remember. If they want to put on a sweater that is always hanging in a certain place, and it is not there, they are not going to remember why it is not there. Since the patient certainly would not have told someone they could move it or put it elsewhere, someone must have taken it. Theft is a dementia patient's logical conclusion for misplaced or missing items.

This paranoia about theft could just be dismissed as one of the frustrating traits developed by those with failing memories if it weren't for the disturbing fact that sometimes they are right.

Sometimes people are stealing from these patients, thinking they can get away with it since the person has a failing memory. Unfortunately, the person with dementia is rarely believed when they voice such an accusation.

Elders are Vulnerable

Think about seniors' vulnerability. I equate it with a small child in school having to defend themselves against a teacher. Who do people tend to believe? The adult teacher, of course. But what happens if the teacher is lying?

In my hometown recently, there was a couple on trial for signing the woman's father's name to a very large loan guarantee. The father has Alzheimer's. The rest of the family says he was not capable of knowing what he was signing, even if he did actually sign the document. The suspicion is it may be a forged signature, but this has yet to be proven. The couple took very good care of the father. He lacked for nothing, according to stories about the incident. What will happen next is up to the courts.

However, we all have heard of times when elders have been swindled. Elder fraud is almost an industry in and of itself. Their vulnerability sets the stage and gives scammers the perfect opportunity. They give out their account information to "a nice young man" who is seeking donations for cancer research, and afterwards, they may find their checking account is completely empty. But that scenario is much different than an elder who doesn't remember that she set her sweater down in the bathroom, so she accuses a caregiver of stealing it.

Can You Believe Their Accusations?

So, who is right when an elder says someone is stealing their money or belongings? Is there a nursing home or assisted living center that can claim an employee has never stolen from an elder? Of course the good ones guard against that with background checks and experienced employees. But still, this crime can and does happen. There are dishonest people working in every industry.

There is no simple answer. The worst scenario would be to not believe an elder when someone was stealing, or worse yet, abusing them physically. If they say they are being treated roughly, look for evidence. Go to visit at odd times, and look closely. Do not accuse anyone until you have something to go on, however talking things over in a nice way with an administrator can be a wise move. Let everyone know, by your presence, that you are available to your loved one.

Keep Tabs On Belongings

If the elder is accusing people of stealing, you will have a better idea whether it is truth or fact if you know what they own or what they have with them in a residence. If they are in their own home and have in-home care, it's good to perform an inventory of valuables early on.

However, if we are just talking about everyday personal belongings, we can make life easier for everyone if we explain to the elder exactly what we are doing with these items and why. Ask other caregivers to do the same. Elders have so few choices in left, and for most of them even those choices trickle away as the days pass. They should be included in as much of their own business as possible, no matter what their capability.

Leaving Reminders

You may want to leave a reminder note for your loved one if you do something or take something with you when you leave. Ask other family members and professional caregivers to do the same. It is a good idea to have a pen and paper handy for many things, so you could write a note ahead saying something to the effect that, "Tomorrow we'll clean out your bedside drawer." Then leave the note lying around for a few days after the fact as a reminder.

Keep Good Records

If you have anything to do with the elder's valuables or money, keep good records. That does not always work with the elder, but it works if things get ugly and you or someone else is accused of wrongdoing.

I dreaded showing my mother her monthly bank statement, as she would feel terrible about the large sum of money going to the nursing home every month. So, I would often avoid it if she did not ask.

If she asked, I'd bring the checkbook, along with all of her statements (even her taxes, if necessary) so she would have no choice but to see where her money was going. I did not want to be cruel. I would rather she did not worry about money at all. She had everything she wanted: A private room and whatever she asked for. When she would ask me, in an accusatory way, where all of her money was going, I would have to show her. It broke my heart. But there was no other way, because if I didn't remind her, she would decide I was out buying mink coats.

As for an incidence like Victoria's sweater, If you are on top of it at the beginning, and you see an elder develop a special attachment to a piece of clothing or an item of some sort, get a clone, if you can. If it is too late for that, you can still try to find a ringer. If that doesn't work? Just suck it up. It will be back from the wash or the repair shop later, and tomorrow is another day.

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.

Minding Our Elders

View full profile

You May Also Like

Free AgingCare Guides

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


Im trying to find out if my mom has this disease. She bames me for steling her money and forgets everyday items. She also hears and sees things that arent happening. Ive tried getting her help but when we go she acts as nothing is wrong and Im the one with problems. She decided to go home and wont speak to me. How do I find out what this is she has. Your article sounds like her. But she wont let me get the help she needs. Please give me some ideas
It's easy to say it would be the person with dementia, but, truth be told, you don't know for sure unless you have a hidden video camera in the room. One facility in my area just lost their license for abusive actions from their cna's.......
Ya all got no idea how horrible I feel to see this happening to my beloved Grandmother. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry. My partner and I moved to the city in 2000. As my Grandparents wintered here they followed in 2004. Thru the years, we'd always been each other's rock in an extremely dysfunctional family. I always managed to maintain a balance between work, my life and their life, making sure the lawn was mowed and the sprinklers worked. I thought the worst had hit a few years back, when she had to have a knee replacement. That was hell on earth, or so I'd thought . . . I was there faithfully morning and night for physical therapy as I vowed she would not walk with a limp . . . I was the only one that could push her to the limit and bring her to tears . . . she never complained. I believe it was a month after her knee surgery that my Grandfather was diagnosed with Multiple-Meyloma. That was something I had both of them down. I begged and pleaded with my family to call and offer support of simply talking about something that was happening in their lives to take their minds off of what was happening in ours. That was a disaster . . . I was able to shoulder it alone. If I recall correctly, in all that time I only missed 2 Dr. appointments because someone was visiting and I could take a break. My Grandfather ended up with Lung and Liver Cancer in addition to the Meyloma and the treatments for both counteracted one another. To watch this very strong man be so very frail, I thought broke my heart. They were able to return home for one last summer in 2009. Just when I thought what could happen next, my life with my partner ended due to his dishonesty and obvious financial stupidity . . . relatively unimportant in the scheme of things. While they were away for the summer, it was as thou my life had exploded entirely over their world. It was so devistating that my brother had to come help me. I don't know what I would have done had it not been for him. At that time, once I had gained my feet back under me, it was like a burden had been lifted from my shoulders, my purpose no longer included taking care of my own affairs. I became their sole care givers 1000%. No mind you that divorce is such a bitch that you lose many, what one would consider near and dear friends. Some how, I was able to reach out and volunteer at the community center and rebuild my life while maintaining 48+ hr work week and being primary care giver to my Grandparents. My Grandfather passed away the end of December 2009. OMG, the man was in such pain and she was in absolute denial, she wouldn't give him his pain medication as she didn't want him to become addicted . . . really, WTF! He and I had a routine and I was the only one he would ask . . . the last couple weeks of December were the most difficult . . . I thought I'd killed him with the liquid morphine . . . guess it was just enough that his body relaxed and his soul slipped out. After his death, it took all that I had to bring her back around. I knew that I was in over my head and asked for help from everyone that would listen. I only got her to go out on two occasions. I was able to bring her back enough to be able to go home and visit for the summer. Now, mind you this was a very much needed break for me. And my summer break was mostly spending time in the Garden and doing yard work. There is such a beauty in nature and an overwhelming peace. The beginning to the current state of affairs was when she returned in August. It was a simple little thing. She couldn't find her rubber band stretchy thing that she used to do her knee exercises. I honestly could not tell you if she had taken it with her and left it somewhere or what. Immediately, she thought that my Best Friend's kids must have taken it. I told her, are you kidding me, that's crazy, they haven't even been here. Nope, couldn't convince her any different. Then it went to Grandpa's watch was missing . . . there, again, I've got no clue where she put it. I do remember telling her that where she had it was probably not the best place to keep it, my bloody mistake. She was trying to give it to me at the time and I didn't want to hurt her feelings, but I don't even wear a watch. Even if I were to wear a watch, that's not my style. So, then my friends must have stolen the damn watch. Here we go, again . . . the kids are stealing, my friends are stealing . . . and ain't nobody been there unaccounted for . . . these things simply did not happen. This all went round and round . . . talk about an emotional roller coaster. Let me tell you, all hell broke lose on March 2 of this year . . . it was my day off, she asked me if I wanted to go the the Nursery to get Seaweed for the yard . . . I was thrilled she wanted to get out and do something. She even wanted to go to Michael's to get new silk flowers for this hideous old lady floral arangement . . . I thought how fabulous. It wasn't 5 minutes later, and she was accusing me of being a thief, a liar and I must be on drugs. Where in the hell did that come from???? I lost it, I had to leave, I instantly began searching for an apartment . . . that was the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak. Those three words still have one hell of a sting to them . . . are you kidding me, thief, liar, drugs . . .WOW? I was and am so terribly hurt to think that this woman that I adore and have unconditionally loved my whole life could think such things and talk such crap. The only positive thing that's come of it is a mended relationship with my Mother. Everyone else is in denial and thinks oh, there's gotta be something wrong with me. All I have to say is that they haven't been here and they haven't seen what I see. It scares me even more to see how vulnerable she is . . . I can't even go check on her because I've been branded . . . cast aside like some piece of rubbish. And my own fear and anxiety of what her imagination will conjure. This one threw me for quite the loop, she keeps talking crap and in the same breath tells everyone that I can come back, if only I apologize. Apologize for what, I have done nothing wrong, but try to help. It worries me, beyond all words, that she was at my ex's, last Saturday. I don't know if she was invited by him, which is alarming, because he'd be the one to take advantage of an ill gotten opportunity or if she just went there thinking I would be there. I do not know how to help my Grandmother and it breaks my heart that my hands are tied. I am scared for her and I am disappointed at the ignorance of the people in our lives. That's enough of this nonsense . . . I just had to vent. For anyone feeling this pain in your life, my prayers are with you. I sure do not know how to find peace with it . . . my only advice is do not ask what next . . .just sayin.