When a Loved One With Dementia Thinks You're Stealing

Carol Bradley Bursack | Sep 7th 2017 Sep 11th 2017

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Accused of stealing from a loved one? The first time it happens many caregivers find themselves choking back tears. They try a logical approach although they’ve long realized that logic is not effective when communicating with a person living with dementia. But to be accused of stealing your dad’s hearing aid? Your mom’s sweater? This is the parent for whom you gave up so much in order to provide care. Now they think you are stealing from them. How do you handle this all-too-common problem?

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Why your loved one accuses you

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The first thing to remember is that dementia, not the person, is the culprit. Combine short-term memory loss with the anxiety, the confusion, and the frustration that is part of dementia, and you can see the reason for your loved one’s paranoia. Your dad can’t find his hearing aid and he is certain that he put it in the box where it belongs. Why would he have done anything different? Now, it’s gone. So someone took it. You’re the only one there, so it has to be you. This is very real to him.

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Don’t take the accusation personally

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You’ve likely had times when you thought that someone must have taken something from you. However, the thought is fleeting because you can mentally retrace your steps and remember that, in fact, you used that $20 at the store yesterday. Not so for your loved one who lives with dementia. The ability to retrace steps is gone, so their first thought is that someone took what they can’t find. Sadly, that thought sticks. So, don’t take the accusation personally. It’s the dementia talking.

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Join them in their world

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When your loved one is accusing you she’s trying to make sense of her reality as best she can. Stay calm and don’t argue. Join her in the world that she understands. Reassure her that you understand that this item is missing and that you will help her find it. You can say that you didn’t take it but that you understand why it seems that way. Then try distraction. If she can’t be distracted in some way, let her watch you as you hunt for the missing article. Remember to check the garbage.

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The hearing aid in the lamp

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One woman told me that her mother would hide her hearing aid because she was afraid that someone would steal it. Then, when the mother couldn’t find the hearing aid, she would accuse the daughter of taking it. Once, the daughter found the hearing aid under a plant. Once, she found it in a container in the refrigerator. Once, she even found it in a lampshade. The mother was acting on the only reality that she knew. Her hearing aid was missing, therefore it was stolen. The daughter had to adjust.

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Voice tone and body language are important

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Never underestimate the power of voice tone and body language when interacting with someone who lives with dementia. Stay calm. Keep your voice compassionate but not condescending. Use a soft touch or a hug if your loved one is receptive to this. Affirm her feelings. She needs to feel that you are on her side. If she feels this, she may let go of the idea that you stole from her, or at least allow you to look for the missing object without getting even more upset.

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Keep duplicates of special items when possible

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Elizabeth lived in a nursing home and she had a red sweater that she wanted to wear every day. The aides needed to have the sweater washed occasionally but, even though they explained this to Elizabeth, she would accuse them of stealing her sweater simply because it was gone. One of these wonderful aides went shopping and bought a similar red sweater. Elizabeth may have had a feeling that this sweater was different but since she always had a red sweater she was happy. That problem was solved.

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If money is an issue, try business cards

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People with dementia want to be independent enough to pay their way but often can’t remember if they have cash. The money could have been taken or they could have thrown it away. Either way, if it’s missing, you could be accused. I made my dad business cards so that when he wanted to tip or pay, he could simply give them a card. His services were covered in the nursing home bill, but since he couldn’t understand, I told him his cards were a way of “charging” to his personal account. This wasn’t a perfect solution but it helped.

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Look for support from people who’ve been there

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Being wrongly accused of stealing, or any type of abuse, by someone whom you love is devastating. Support groups, whether in person, online, or both, can be your saving grace. Once you become part of a group, you will likely hear others tell similar stories. You may even be able to laugh. Knowing that you aren’t alone is essential to coping with the anxiety and guilt-related issues that caregiving will likely bring. Get thee to a support group. It’s bound to help.

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The takeaway

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Elder abuse in any form is a despicable crime, and that includes stealing. However, what we are covering here is the common situation where someone living with dementia feels they are being stolen from or taken advantage of because of their inability to understand reality or trace past actions. Their reality is their reality and no one can change that. What caregivers can do is work on accepting this as the new norm and then seek support from a group or a professional to help them cope.