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When an elder thinks people are stealing

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Elders with dementia often accuse people of stealing. Most often, the problem is that they don't remember where they put their belongings and they can't comprehend their financial circumstances. The caveat is, sometimes people are stealing from them. So who do you believe?

A woman named Elizabeth was a fixture at a nursing home where I visited nearly every day for fifteen years. My neighbor, my uncle, my mother-in-law, and eventually my parents all lived there at different times. Elizabeth was there the entire fifteen years, and she ruled the roost the whole time.

When I'd leave the dining room, guiding my mother-in-law with her walker, Elizabeth would snag me with her very strong hand and demand that I move her wheelchair an inch to the side. It wasn't in the exact spot she liked. That was typical. Elizabeth wanted what she wanted and she wanted it now. What's more, she knew what was hers and if it wasn't where she thought it should be, someone stole it.

The Doll and the Penny

Elizabeth had a little rag doll she loved, and the doll wore overalls with little pockets. She kept a penny in each tiny doll pocket. Naturally, since Elizabeth carried the doll around on her lap as she rode in her wheelchair, a penny would often fall out of the doll's pocket. Once Elizabeth discovered a penny missing, a howl went up that convinced anyone on the floor not acquainted with Elizabeth's manner that someone had just died.

To Elizabeth, circumstances were nearly that bad. She was convinced someone stole the penny. To avoid this ruckus, many of us who regularly visited the home carried pennies in our pockets so we could efficiently slip one in the doll's pocket, thus calming Elizabeth by showing her that no one took anything at all. This was a fairly easy fix.

However, an elder's missing items aren't always so easy to replace. A woman I interviewed told me about her mother's hearing aids. They were missing and her mother was accusing the caregivers of stealing them. A search finally uncovered them hidden in a lamp base. Her paranoid mother was afraid someone would take them so she hid them and forgot what she had done.

Then, there's money. Elizabeth continually accused the caregivers of stealing all of her money. Fortunately in this case the caregivers had no access to her money, so there was no one to blame, but she complained constantly of their thievery anyway.

Often, elders need help with their finances as they can no longer balance checkbooks and take care of bills. They don't understand the expenses of in-home care, facility care or their other needs for that matter. Unfortunately, when an elder sees money going out for these expenses, some may accuse the caregiver of stealing their money.

When it Comes to Stealing: Whom to Believe?

It's not easy to know who to believe when you hear an elder accuse someone of stealing from them because the awful fact is that it does happen. There are people who skim off whatever they can from their parents' money and leave the parents to Medicaid. They'd rather inherit money than pay for their parents' best care.

Trickier still are items such as jewelry in nursing homes. My mother-in-law's wedding ring set with a large diamond was very loose on her finger, as she had lost weight. One day I noticed the rings were gone. I assumed one of her son's had taken them for safe keeping. Later an aide asked about them. I asked around and no one seemed to know what happened. They were never found. Did someone steal them or did they go down the toilet? We'll never know.

Dealing with Difficult Situations: Err on the Side of Caution

If you suspect that an elder is not being cared for in the manner that his or her finances should allow, then I would suspect financial abuse. Elderly people are vulnerable to many things, and that includes trusting people to care for them who don't have the elder's best interest at heart. Tread carefully, though, because accusations of financial abuse are serious, and if you are wrong you can cause enormous problems for an innocent person. However, if you have grounds to suspect that the elder isn't being cared for because money is a problem and it shouldn't be, then you should think about alerting authorities.

Thankfully, most of the time when the elder is ranting about people stealing things from them, it's because they have forgotten where they placed something, they think they still own an item they lost or sold decades ago or they have become paranoid from dementia and suspect everyone of stealing from them.

Difficult Situations: What Do You Say?

When your mother says you are stealing her money because you've been paying her bills, when your dad accuses you of stealing his golf clubs (you don't even play golf!), and when your grandmother swears you, her caregiver, took her clothes to wear to work, what do you say?

I'm a proponent of joining the person with dementia in his or her world. However, there are times when this approach doesn't work, and this is one of them. Your best hope is distraction and a good sense of humor. If the accusations become more than a fleeting annoyance, you may need to get a third party to explain things to your elder. A pastor or even a financial adviser may be able to clear your good name for the moment.

I'd like to tell you that this good humor lasts. It likely won't, as the elder, particularly one with advanced dementia, typically forgets the whole incident, only to resurrect it at another time.

Only you can decide how much you can shrug off, how much distraction may work and how often you need to involve a third party. Please try to remember that in most cases the elder can't help this behavior. They are extremely vulnerable and they feel this vulnerability. Protect yourself, but try to do so with an understanding heart. If you are responsible for the elder's finances, keep very good records, and remember that third party involvement is your ace in the hole should you need help.

Those two things and a sense of humor should get you through.