When a person develops any form of dementia, it is difficult for family and friends to witness their diminishing capacity and the unbearable frustration it brings. However, one of the worst things we must cope with is the fact that this person’s brain is broken and may cause them to tell terrible "lies" about us. As much as this hurts, it is important to remember that no matter how far-fetched their stories and accusations may be, in their mind, these things are true.
Short-Term Memory Loss and Paranoia Are to Blame
Misplacing and “hiding” personal items is a hallmark of dementia, which can be terribly disorienting and frustrating for patients and caregivers alike. When you add in a bit of paranoia and delusional thinking, a “lost” purse or medication bottle can suddenly become the reason for accusing a devoted caregiver of theft. Emotions like anger, anxiety and confusion leave elders feeling vulnerable and taken advantage of, which causes them to become defensive and accusatory as they try to make sense of what they cannot understand.
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 far more instances where helpful and well-meaning gestures are misconstrued as acts of trickery or deceit. For example, a dementia patient may ask a caregiver or family member to launder a piece of clothing, repair their eyeglasses or purchase groceries using cash they provide. When they find their favorite blouse, glasses or money is gone, they fail to recall their own request. Accusations can fly and then the caregiver is left scrambling to explain themselves to someone who is impossible to reason with.
If It Wasn’t so Sad, It Might Be Funny
The Caregiver Forum is populated by stressed caregivers who are experiencing this problem. Even when they are performing simple household duties, like washing clothes or setting up a weekly medication organizer, they can be faced with accusations of theft.
I remember the last year of my mother’s life when she frequently told the housekeeper at her nursing home that I was stealing her clothes so I could wear them to work. It was funny in its own way, but Mom’s suspicions and lack of trust were also somewhat painful. I was simply doing the same thing I’d done for years: swapping her out-of-season clothes in her tiny closet with season appropriate items that I stored for her. We had done this little switch-out for years, and it had always been fun rediscovering forgotten items and gifting Mom a few new ones. However, that last year, it was just sad.
While it hurt my feelings that my mother thought I was capable of stealing from her, I tried really hard not to take it personally. We dementia caregivers must remember that the outrageous things our loved ones say are the disease talking, not their old selves. Try your best to keep your sense of humor even during the most trying times. Dad may be livid and screaming about you stealing his dentures, but if you think about it, the concept of stealing someone else’s teeth is mildly comical. There is some truth to laughter being the best medicine. Many caregivers, including myself, often find that if they didn’t laugh, they’d end up crying instead.
Accusations of Abuse Are No Laughing Matter
I was fortunate that none of the elders I cared for ever leveled serious accusations against me, even in their severely demented states. Some caregivers aren’t so lucky, and some fabrications can have very serious consequences. Allegations of elder abuse and neglect are the most emotionally and potentially legally and financially devastating for family members to endure.
If word gets out, Adult Protective Services (APS) and even the police may investigate the matter. To a caregiver whose loved one is fabricating stories about being mistreated, an investigation may be humiliating and seem like a waste of time and resources, but elder abuse is a reality for many seniors. These entities must look into all reports to protect those dementia patients who are actually telling the truth.
Most false accusations stem from a dementia patient’s inability to connect with reality. For example, assistance bathing or dressing may be misconstrued as inappropriate touching. Trying to get an elder in the car to go on an outing or to a doctor’s appointment may translate to kidnapping in their broken mind. The way they perceive the world around them has changed and their reaction is often one of fear and self-defense. Remember that they are not trying to cause trouble on purpose.
How to Cope with Untrue and Unwarranted Statements
- Seek support. It doesn’t matter if it’s from the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Hotline, a spiritual leader, another family member, a social worker at your loved one’s nursing home, fellow caregivers in a support group or a friend. You need to discuss your concerns with someone to vent your frustrations and get sound advice on how to move forward.
- Keep meticulous records if you have anything to do with managing your loved one’s finances. Have them organized and ready to present to the person who is accusing you and whoever is investigating these claims.
- If your loved one prepared legally for aging and potential incompetence, have copies of all pertinent forms on hand. This includes HIPAA forms and power of attorney documents that give you access to their medical and/or financial information.
- 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. Something as simple as failing to account for spent or comingled funds can lead to a full investigation.
- If an investigation does transpire, cooperate fully. You may feel some resentment toward APS staff or police officers, but they’re only doing their jobs. If you’ve done nothing wrong, then there is nothing to hide.
- If you have siblings or others who believe the accuser and not you, you may want to consider working with a family mediator to resolve the situation.
Keep in mind that these accusations are often transient, and patients eventually forget the incidents they initially reacted to. It is hard for a caregiver to forget that they have been accused of stealing or harming someone they love, but this is a time when we must remember that this 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, we must protect ourselves and document our efforts to protect and care for those we love. If an accusation should turn into more than a fleeting fabrication, seek proper help and guidance to ensure you can remain blameless and continue to provide quality care for your loved one.