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Hiding/losing objects and making false accusations

Changes in behaviour


My mother often loses her keys and gets quite upset about it. I don’t know whether she really loses them or hides them and then forgets having done so, because I sometimes find them in unusual places. A friend advised me to get copies made just in case. I did this and also managed to find an identical key ring, so if ever I can’t find them, I’ll give her the copies and she won’t have to worry. One day I said to my Gran in a calm voice, “Nobody in this house would steal any of your things. You can’t help it because your memory isn’t good, even though it can be very upsetting to the person you accuse.” She agreed and repeated, “Nobody in our family steals.”

People with dementia might sometimes think that they have lost something and get upset about it. They may have forgotten where they put the item or that they gave it to someone. Perhaps they originally hid it out of fear that someone would steal it and then forgot having done so. If the person suffers from incontinence, they might try to hide soiled underwear out of embarrassment. It is even possible that the lost item does not exist. It could be a persisting memory from the past or symbolic of losses caused by the disease. Hidden or lost objects can be a source of much concern for the person with dementia, but can also be upsetting for other people, particularly those who are accused of theft. It can be quite a blow to be accused of theft by a parent, spouse or close friend. For this reason, it is important not only to look for the lost object and reassure the person with dementia, but also to try to deal with your own emotions and those of the people who may be upset or saddened by false accusations.

How to cope with the loss or hiding of objects and false accusations

Reassure and help the person with dementia

The person with dementia might be frantic with worry and perhaps accuse other people of having stolen something. They may need reassurance that you will find what is lost and that there are no thieves in the house. Finding the object will probably be sufficient to resolve the problem. But it is also important to remain calm so as to avoid an over-reaction.

Don’t take accusations personally

It may be difficult not to take an accusation personally or be offended. But it is important to remember that the person with dementia does not mean to offend you and that their behaviour is merely a result of the disease. Such false accusations are perhaps understandable - they know that something was in a particular place, but have forgotten having moved it or given it away. Someone must have moved or stolen it. The person may be more suspicious of people than they were before the disease and may therefore be more inclined to believe that it was stolen (please see chapter on hallucinations and paranoid delusions).

How to prevent problems due to the loss/hiding of objects and false accusations

Try to keep track of where objects are kept and where they tend to be hidden

Try to notice where the person with dementia leaves or hides their belongings. You may find that objects always seem to turn up in the same place. Then, whenever they complain that something has been stolen or is lost, you will have a good idea where it is. By locking drawers and cupboards you can reduce the number of possible hiding places for objects and speed up the search process when something is mislaid. Don’t forget that the person with dementia might put things in unusual places, so check wastepaper bins and laundry baskets before emptying them.

Keep copies of important objects

It is possible that from time to time, the person really does lose something. To avoid further problems and upset, you could try in advance to obtain copies of items which are important such as keys, reading glasses or documents.

Look for hoarded food

It is not unusual for people with dementia to hide and hoard food. This may be because they are afraid that someone will steal it. It is a good idea to check popular hiding places on a regular basis as food may start to decay, smell unpleasant and could be a possible health risk.

Warn others in advance not to take accusations personally

People who are unfamiliar with the disease and what it involves may be quite taken aback by an accusation of theft, particularly if they are a member of the family or a close friend of the person with dementia. It is therefore a good idea to warn them not to take accusations personally. In this way, they will be less likely to take offence, be shocked or saddened by the behaviour of the person with dementia.



Last Updated: Monday 10 August 2009