What's the diplomatic way to handle wild accusations by a parent with Alzheimer's?

A fellow caregiver asked...

A kind neighbor checks in daily on my mother, a widow who has Alzheimer's. Ever since my mom accused her of stealing, this woman is ready to call it quits. Mom's accusations are getting more and more wild. She says things like, "You ate my dessert!" and "I know you took my purse." How can I keep the peace -- and her neighbor's help?

Expert Answer

Susan Frick is a social worker at the Rush University Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago.

Reassure the neighbor that you know full well she's not doing any of those things, and thank her for her valuable help. Remind her that this behavior is common among people with Alzheimer's, and ask her to try not to take it personally. If the behavior only happens occasionally, it signals that your mom could be feeling stressed or anxious. She's probably forgetting things and losing items and, in her stress, blaming her helper.

Even though you know her purse wasn't stolen, it feels very real to her, and arguing with her won't convince her that it didn't happen. Explain to the neighbor that your mother doesn't understand that she has said something inappropriate or inaccurate.

When you speak with your mother, support what she's feeling by saying something like:

  • "I'm so sorry your purse is gone. We'll hunt it down."
  • "That's terrible. Let me tell you about a time someone took my purse."
  • "What was in your purse?"
  • "Where do you usually keep your purse?"

If the accusations occur frequently, look at whether she accuses only this neighbor, and consider getting someone else to look in on her. You might also ask your mom's physician about ways to help her feel more secure and safe. Medications are a last resort, but you may be able to modify her living situation to make her feel more relaxed. I think being home alone could be really hard on your mother. It might help if she went to a daycare center or if she had a home health aide come in and assist her. She may do better with more support from other people.