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Targets for Theft - Alzheimer's Nursing Home Residents

I recall years ago, hearing the story of my favorite aunt Agnes who was a resident at a nursing home in Gladstone, Michigan. She was the victim of a theft in that her wedding/engagement rings were stolen. I remember being horrified at the cruelty of the theft. The rings were taken from her person. They were on her ring finger and because of enlargement of the knuckle, the thief's lacerated her finger in removing the rings. Agnes was a victim of some form of dementia - probably Alzheimer's so she was of no help in identifying the culprits.

Since this crime took place in the early 1990's, I assumed that it was an anomaly of that time and place and was not likely to reoccur  in our more enlightened times.

Unfortunately such is not the case. I have since found out that theft from the residents is not an unusual occurrence at all. It might be termed to be one of the nursing home's "dirty little secrets". It all gives the appearance of being swept under a rug. A conspiracy of silence under a guise of privacy. My impression is that the administration is frequently in "denial" that a theft took place.

Residents of a nursing home, particularly Alzheimer's residents or other's having some form of dementia are easy victims. Particularly the residents who are in the middle and late stages of the disease. They are particularly vulnerable because they lack the mental capacity to protect themselves and are of no aid in finding the perpetrators of the thefts.

It is a form of theft that involves little risk to the thief. I have been told by a police officer that nursing home residents are favorite and common targets of thieves. There is little risk of detection to the thief in that such thefts are only casually investigated if investigated at all, and the thieves are almost never identified.

The Alzheimer's Association data indicates that 60% of the residents of nursing homes have some form of dementia.

Because Alzheimer's residents are good victims of opportunity and the risk of detection is small, it seems to make little difference as to the type of administration, ownership or sponsorship of the facility. Theft is not often taken seriously by the administration or it would not be as prevalent as it is.

 June was the victim of a number (8) of thefts during her over 3.5 years in two Alzheimer's Assisted Living and Nursing Home facilities.

(Photo Below Right is June K. Berg in the days before her residence in a Alzheimer's Nursing Home facility.)
June Berg 1993
 

1.  $20.00 Cash from June's billfold - Week of
          16 March 2005.

 2.  New Red colored Bath Robe - Week of
      16 March 2005. (Gift from June's daughter
       Julie. Value $40.)

 3...New pair of beige colored  ladies
       DearFoam Slippers. -.24 July 2005.
       (Value $20. - gift from June's
        daughter Susan.)

4,  TV Remote, Samsung  17 October 2005 
       (Value - $80. - Replacement Cost.)

5.  Blanket - throw type with woven Nativity
      Scene. - 20 November 2005.
         (Value - priceless...family heirloom.)

6.  Two new pair of ladies DearFoam
      Slippers red/navy blue  - 3/25/2006.
       (Gift from daughter Susan...new in
         package. $40 - 2 pair.)

 7.  Gold Necklace and gold Cross Pendant.
       ($300 value.) - 3 February 2007.
        (Gift from Stan to June. Cross worn for
         many years - had special meaning.)

 8.  Bottle Cologne/Perfume"Sung" brand 
       ($70. value.) 6 July 2007.
        (Gift from June's son David.)

None of the above eight items were ever found or returned.  There was no formal response to any of my notices of missing items. No formal communication of action taken or results obtained.

The cash was left with June because she was accustomed to having cash on hand and It was thought that a modest amount of cash would give her a more comfortable feeling her first week in strange place with unfamiliar surroundigs. This was an assumed risk. The cash was gone in less than a week. June had a tendency to show her money and was a generous person. There was no place to spend the money on the premises of the facility involved. This item of disappearance was not unexpected.

The disappearance of the other items however were unexpected. Special security measures were in place for the gold necklace and gold cross. I had never really thought that anyone would steal "God's Cross." I was wrong. June would wear the necklace and cross during the day. June was incapable of putting the necklace on or taking it off. In the evening at bed time the necklace and cross was to be removed by the nurse on duty and locked up for the night in the nurses office. In the morning a nursing assistant would place the necklace and cross on June for the day. One day it was missing and no one seemed to recall when it was last seen or handled on the night before. The nurse on duty thought it probably was at her home in the pocket of her previous days clothing...later advised me that No, it was not there. The cross and necklace had sentimental value. It was the first cross I had purchased as a gift for June. June had worn it for many years. I had purchased other gift crosses for June but this one had special meaning. There was little question in my mind as to who the thief was but I had no way of proving it and the Nursing Home staff seemed more intent on forgetting all about it. In spite of the Nursing Home's obligation to protect the property of the residents, The lady in charge of social services at the Benedictine handled the once over lightly investigation. I received no formal written response to my report of theft nor even a comment, verbal or otherwise by the social services lady nor the Bendedictine's administrator. I felt hurt and puzzled by the lack of interest by the staff...eventually I forgot about it an put it in the past!.

The expensive cologne/Perfume was a replacement for an exhausted supply of cheaper cologne. Within 4 days it was missing.  I reported it missing on 6 July 2007. No apparent investigation made.

The new slippers and robe were missing with in a day or two of their arrival.

The TV Remote control was just a few months old when it was stolen. The associated Samsung TV had been purchased new in the month after Junes arrival. When the TV remote disappeared, it was at first thought to be an item picked up by another resident and misplaced. The TV remote was reported as missing as soon as it's absence was noted. However as the months went by and the TV remote was not found, it was assumed to be an item of theft by someone owning a Samsung TV set. Remotes are an expensive replacement item.

Resident's used clothing is thought to be relatively safe from theft . (This may not be true in view of the Tribune news article quoted below.) Used clothing may become temporarily mislaid. Normally a resident's clothing is marked with the name of the resident. Laundry facilities may deliver to the wrong room or a resident may pick up or move clothing to another room. Such mistakes are normally corrected in a short time because the owner's name marked on the clothing makes the item easily identifiable. As a general rule, thieves have less interest in used clothing. We did not inventory the clothing taken with June to the nursing/assisted living facilities. June always purchased attractive and fashionable name brand clothing. There may have been losses in clothing that we did not take note of and were unaware of.

While the vast majority of the employees of assisted living and nursing facilities' are people of honesty and integrity, there will always be a few "rotten apples" that do not fit the mold. Many are dedicated, loving, caring and compassionate. For some it is a calling as if they were heaven sent. It is unfortunate that the few who violate their trust, cast such a large shadow. The facilities have a number of varied types of employees who have access to the resident's rooms. (Nursing assistants, nurses, medical staff, housekeeping staff, kitchen staff, maintenance staff, therapy staff, front office staff, social services and activities staff.)

When I reported the theft of the Gold Cross and Necklace to the local police, I was advised that thefts at nursing facilities are common. My impression from the police Sergeant was that nothing much would be done about it. I was right. I was not even asked for my impression of what happened to the necklace and pendant.

The facilities conduct a very limited investigation.  Usually the individual that is in charge of all cases of missing valuables will simply examine the residents room to see if the item was mislaid. Usually the laundry will be checked, and the waste baskets, under the beds and night stands will be searched. The nurse in charge (usually an LPN) will be interviewed. Little else is done. The police normally do little if any investigation. They take a report for insurance purposes and that is usually the extent of their involvement. When I reported the theft of June's Gold necklace and cross pendant to the police, ($300 value) a report was taken and that was the last I heard of it. No police investigation was done at the nursing home that I am aware of.

The prevalence of the crime of theft in nursing homes and the ease of commission is clearly spelled out in this report by the American Society on Aging. -  researchers Diana Harris and Michael Benson:-  "Heartbreak of Theft in Nursing Homes."

Nursing home patients make attractive targets for thieves who can operate in a long-term care facility with the ease of a fox in a henhouse, according to one observer. Although the theft of possessions is one of the most common problems that nursing home residents experience, most of the information about this phenomenon comes not from the gerontological literature but from the popular media and from anecdotes.

For example, the Knight-Tribune News Service reported in 1996, "Skulking into rooms at night, thieves use Vaseline or lotion to ease wedding rings off the hands of sleeping patients. An 86-year-old woman awoke inconsolable one morning when she discovered her finger had been stripped of her life's last two mementos: the diamond ring inherited from her father and the engagement ring that her husband had slipped on her finger during a romantic canoe ride. She was heartbroken."

To provide a more systematic look at nursing home theft, we surveyed employees and family members in 47 nursing homes in 10 states. We found that 25.4% of the employees reported seeing their co-workers stealing from nursing home patients or suspecting them of doing so. A small minority of employees reported that they themselves had stolen from patients. Slightly less than one-fifth of the family members said they believed some of their relatives' possessions had been stolen by nursing home employees.

As one family member recounted, "Theft continues to happen. Unfortunately, it's the staff that does it. My aunt had three new outfits among other things that I bought her for Christmas. Two months ago we looked for the beige outfit--gone. The tags had never been taken off. A brand-new crepe blouse--gone. She never put it on her back. It's the good stuff that gets taken. That's not including all the stuff she came with. I would say that at least 25% of her belongings are gone since she's been here."

What makes a perfect crime is not a perfect criminal but a perfect victim. Elderly patients are just that. They are often functionally disabled or cognitively impaired, making them unable to keep up with their belongings. One analysis that can be applied to nursing home theft is the routine-activity theory, which surmises that successful theft requires the presence of a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of capable guardians."

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The U.S. Government's Medicare operation outlines a residents rights in a nursing home and states that the Nursing home has a duty to "protect the residents' property from theft." See the list of the rights of the nursing home residents per medicare:

 

The U.S. Government's listing of a Nursing Home Resident's Rights 

 

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June's obituary as printed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune following her death in October 2008 can be found on the top blue navigation strip under the label "In Memoriam" and on the drop down menu as item (Click on:)

"June K. (Rolstad) Berg - In Memoriam".