How Sentiment and Respect Can Leave Your Parents Vulnerable

Jan 29 2013 Published by under (if) Elder (why) Care, Tales From The Coal Patch

A woman's purse is a part of her person. Even hairy-legged feminazis know that. A purse is an intimate thing; it carries so much of a woman's life inside. If the woman is a mother, it also magically produces all sorts of things for her children: tissues, pieces of candy, bobby pins, loose change, ketchup packets, hand sanitizer, baby wipes, and much more.

Of course a woman may have more than one purse, and will transfer contents from one to the other as the social occasion warrants, but the concept of a woman's purse more than any one purse is what I am talking about. The purse is a symbol of her autonomy and responsibility: she takes care for herself, and she takes care for others.

My mother's purse was ever-present, bountiful and authoritative. Z-mom was the family banker; her purse held the wallet that paid for groceries, clothing, or shoes. When at last she had to move to assisted living, her purse went with her. We knew she could not keep large amounts of cash with her but she wanted some money in her purse "just in case". We allowed $20. And her debit card. The debit card she wanted so that when we took her to doctor appointments, she could be the one to pay for lunch or dinner out. We bought a safe for her room but the purse never ended up in it; it was too awkward to get at and too difficult to open, and mom wanted her purse more accessible.

Inevitably, of course, some one of the low-paid staff stole her wallet out of her purse. The bank immediately recognized suspicious transactions and called me; we cancelled the card. Mom grieved the loss of the photos in her wallet more so than the few hundred dollars card theft (which, in any case, the bank reimbursed, as she was covered against fraud). Luckily, the wallet was found and returned to her, minus the $20 and the debit card. The thief and her boyfriend were caught on surveillance video and sentenced to some jail time. Mom's trust in the staff who cared for her took a hit. And we decided, no more debit card in the purse. My sisters would hold her card to use when they took mom out.

This was the right decision to protect mom against identify theft and fraud. We should have done it from the start. But it felt like cutting a hole in the bottom of her purse. Hacking out the purse was something we just couldn't bring ourselves to do at the time we were uprooting her from her life-long home for the potting soil of assisted living. So we left her exposed to theft.

Mom continued to take her purse with her when she went out, but sometimes we just took the handicap parking pass. Once or twice she remarked that there wasn't any point in her taking the purse since it wasn't needed for anything. This broke my heart. Your heart breaks at least three or four times a month when you are caring for your parents, if you are doing it right.

This past year has been full of grief and illness for Z-mom. From June to December, she underwent eleven transitions between her assisted living home, the hospital, rehab hospitals, and a skilled nursing home. The last straw was when she was finally back to her old self, but just for a few weeks; she fell and broke an arm. Back to skilled nursing. Recovery has been difficult. When I last saw her in early January she seemed distant. It was difficult to engage her. The thought occurred to me, we should take her rings home. She's so not herself, what if someone takes them off her hand? Or what if someone takes them off her for some reason for bathing and they are lost? And then I thought, what am I taking them home and saving them for? For when she is "better"? She's so depressed, won't this just make things worse? How can I go to her and tell her, you can't wear your wedding rings anymore, you can't wear your mother's ring with the six gemstones anymore? How can I take them away from her? Getting old is a process of gradually losing pieces of your life and autonomy. How can I say, even this, your wedding rings, you must lose, so that you can keep them? Keep them safe, so we can put them back on you in the casket?

So I said nothing. It turns out, my sister had much the same thoughts and doubts as I did. And, it turns out, we should have listened to ourselves. Z-mom's wedding rings are gone.

She says I took them off my hands to put lotion on and I put them on my tray table and then I forgot to put them back on and then they were gone. This doesn't make sense to me. How did she get the lotion? She can't reach it from her bed or wheelchair; someone had to give it to her. But also: she never takes her rings off, not for anything. Not for wringing out a mop while scrubbing floors, not while doing dishes, not while changing diapers, and definitely not while putting lotion on her hands. Why would she have taken them off, unless someone told her to?  I can't prove it, but in my heart I think someone stole her wedding rings, probably to sell for the gold.

A friend said to me, this is tragic, but in the scope of tragedies, keep in mind that she is safe, she isn't being abused, she doesn't have bedsores, her health is being well looked after. This is all true. But in the scope of all that Z-mom has been dealt in life and over the past six months, I say, really life? This too? Enough already.

What I would advise someone in a similar situation: if your elder loved one is in a senior living arrangement and is showing signs of confusion and/or dementia, take their rings home. When you come to visit them, bring the rings and let them wear and enjoy them while you are there with them. Then take them home again. It's not a perfect solution; you still have to rob them of another piece of their autonomy. But they won't be robbed of their rings, and you won''t have to try to console them over the loss of something that can never be replaced.

It's so very hard to make these choices. Everything you read about elderly people going into assisted living or nursing homes says, don't let them have anything valuable with them. But I haven't seen anything that gives advice on getting past the emotional roadblock involved in doing just that. "Don't let them have anything valuable" sounds sensible in the abstract. No thousand dollar bills or original Monet paintings in the room! That's easy! Taking someone's wallet and rings, however, feels a lot like saying "you're getting more feeble and closer to the grave each day, so just let me have hold of these things dear to your heart and sense of yourself!" Out of respect and love, we desire to let our elders hold on to as much autonomy as they can, as long as possible. In doing so, we risk leaving them vulnerable to thieves and accidents. It's enough to break your heart, one more time.

UPDATE: Apparently I learn nothing, even from my own experience and writing. "Do not give in to sentimentality" is advice easier to give than take. Sigh.

13 responses so far

  • Socal_dendrite says:

    This breaks my heart too. I'm so sorry 🙁

  • Deborah says:

    I'm so sorry, for you, and for your mother.

  • Zuska says:

    WAIT, A MIRACLE HAPPY ENDING!

    My sister just called - she searched mom's room on hands & knees with a flashlight and FOUND THE RINGS under the back corner of a dresser!!!!!!!!

    Sis is taking them home for safe-keeping.

    • chall says:

      WONDERFUL!

      That's the best I've read in a looooong time. happy for your mother, you and your sister. That last part of "bring the rings with you when you visit" is what we did with my grandmother. It sucks, but not as much as the other alternatives.

    • Eli Rabett says:

      Take the rings to a skilled jeweler and get them duplicated. As far as the credit cards get your mom a prepaid card with a small amount of money on it.

  • DJMH says:

    Yay for miracle happy ending!!

    Sadly your advice is still good. When I got engaged, we asked about family rings. It turned out that on one side of my family, the rings were stolen off my great grandmother in a similar situation. So awful. And what it says about the staff, both the screening and the wages, I hate to contemplate.

    If you wouldn't feel too manipulative, maybe you could ask your mom for something from her purse, when you go out together? E.g. "Oh my, why can't I ever find a Kleenex when I need one? Z mom, do you by any chance have one?" (Obviously this ploy only works if she does at least keep tissues.. But you get the idea. Something that makes her feel useful.)

    • Zuska says:

      Oh wow, that is such a great suggestion! Any way one can find to preserve the feeling of being useful is so important. Thank you!

      And I'm so sorry about your grandmother's rings.

      Assisted living home/nursing home staff comprise another group that sorely need union representation, to obtain decent wages and benefits. Of course this will increase the cost of care for everyone who needs it...if we had some reasonable kind of provision as a nation for taking care of the elderly that didn't involve relying on cheap labor (mainly women) it would be good for all.

      • DJMH says:

        Yeah. And you could replace "elderly" with "children" and that paragraph would work just as well. Sigh.

  • theshortearedowl says:

    I'm so glad you got the rings back.

    As far as the debit card goes, could you give Z-Mom a pre-pay card instead?

  • chall says:

    I was thinking the same as 'theshortearedowl': pre-paid card that seems like a debit card? And the "could I have a kneenex" is a good idea.

    You're so right in that the decisions seem "obvious" when you decide on them early on, or when you think of them. It's the implementation of it that turns so hard, since it's like you're eith ergreedy or preparing for them to pass away etc. I have been visiting a lot of hospices and nursing homes the last couple of years and I do think that most of the advice is sorely needed. Especially if the person in the nursing home is semi-lucid or having few times when they are 'themselves'. It's hard to say how much one thing needs the other and what is important for them or for the relatives.... as with lots of things in this "getting old" businiss.

    It's hard to say that only "bad nursing homes" have thefts since most of them (all nursing homes) have staff that are paid little and the opportunity of "just taking that little thing" for someone who is having little must be tempting. Still not happening as much as one would think, but when it happens it is so devastating. The trust of leaving someone you love with someone else and then that happens... gah.

    Sorry for the rant. It just makes me more aware again that I'm going to have some hard decisions when my parents get to that stage since I'm across the ocean right now 🙁

  • sleddog says:

    I am glad the rings were found. Thank you for this post. It is so hard to make an assisted living facility feel a bit like home, and can be so hard to help someone hold onto themselves, their memories, and identities as they age. Having treasured, familiar things can be a real comfort, and it is such a shame that dishonesty is an impediment to this. Workers in caregiving professions (as you note, mostly women) are underpaid for the valuable work they do, but stealing from an elderly person in such a weak, vulnerable position is abhorrent. I suppose benefiting from the work of these underpaid women is also not admirable, but it feels as though individually we have no choice, and collectively, there is not enough will to make a meaningful change.

  • quixote says:

    The same sort of story, years ago. My mother had to be taken to hospital by ambulance because she had kidney failure. She arrived unconscious. By the time I was there, someone had stolen her treasured Swiss watch. She survived, and didn't even seem to care about the watch once she found out. But I never got over it. What kind of subhuman steals something from someone that helpless!

    I'm appalled to find out that kind of subhumanity is just about the norm. How horrible. Where do I resign from this species?

  • "Taking someone's wallet and rings, however, feels a lot like saying "you're getting more feeble and closer to the grave each day, so just let me have hold of these things dear to your heart and sense of yourself!" WOW this could not be more on point. Thank you for sharing. This was an excellent read.