People with Alzheimer's Can Be Reliable Witnesses to Crime

Health Professional

Elder abuse is a major problem, as are many types of other crimes where the victim has Alzheimer's disease or another type of dementia. Relatives, Social Services, Police and legal authorities may often dismiss information given to them because they think the victims are too unreliable as witnesses. The result of not being believed can mean information is not acted on and the abuse will continue, or a perpetrator of a criminal act will not go through State legal processes.

Research carried out by Aileen Wiglesworth, PhD and Laura Mosqueda, MD involved visiting 95 people with dementia (aged 55 and older) in their homes, and a control group of 50 older adults. Memories of recent autobiographical events that have both positive and negative emotional content were elicited during a structured interview to assertain how these affected memory. The information was independently verified by a non-demented informant, most often a family member. The study also involved thorough overall assessments of how each individual usually functionied. This included disease stage, awareness of cognitive abilities, depressive symptoms, functional and cognitive abilities, medications, health conditions, and whether the person made up information, confabulated. A memory test was also carried out.

Their findings were very interesting. They found that a "significant subset of older adults with dementing illnesses can reliably report emotional events in their lives". Compared to people with dementia with less reliable emotional memory, these individuals are able to report details of the event accurately and to recall the same event again after a short time delay. They also found that at an in early stage of the disease they are more aware of their own cognitive impairment, and more likely to report negative events in their lives and to be able to recall an event without cues.

The numbers of people with Alzheimer's disease are increasing and by 2050 as many as 16 million people in the USA will have the disease. It is estimated that about 50% of people with Alzheimer's are abused, most often by a family member or other caregiver, and that does not include information about the numbers of older people with dementia who are victims of other types of crimes in their communities. This study underlines the importance of listening to individuals with dementia. Sometimes we have to take extra care to give people time, be flexible, and never be dismissive just because of a diagnosis. Older adults with dementia who are victims of crime should be evaluated for their ability to remember emotional events in their lives, and based on the results, be allowed to provide testimony about the criminal events.

More Information on Elder Abuse

Help Vulnerable Elders by Getting Educated and Involved