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.
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.