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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published March 27 2011

Bursack: Mom thinks daughter is stealing

Dear Carol: My 88-year-old mother still lives independently, but has recently developed some paranoia. It’s mostly centered on me, as I’m the family member who is with her the most. She misplaces objects and then accuses me of stealing what she can’t find. Even when we find the object, she accuses me of moving it and lying. My siblings live farther away, so it’s hard for them to visit often, yet I don’t want to upset Mom with my presence. How can I support her and my siblings? – Geraldine

Dear Geraldine: Your concern for your mom’s feelings is important. It’s a horrible experience for your parent to think you are stealing from them, but not as unusual as you’d think.

Personality changes can seem to happen quite suddenly with some types of dementias, even though the dementia has been developing for quite some time. Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) often manifests as a personality change. Alzheimer’s disease, however, is much more common, and also can present as paranoid behavior.

Your mom needs to see a doctor for a complete workup. She should be checked for an undiagnosed infection – such as a urinary tract infection – and her medications should be gone over carefully. If she’s had medication changes, the doctor should look at those carefully. I’d suggest that you try to find an experienced gerontologist.

As to what you can do, that’s a tough call. You may want to let some time pass and just communicate with your siblings about your mom’s situation. After a time, if you think it won’t upset her, send a loving card or note. She may forget why you aren’t in her trusted group and wonder what happened to you, then blame you for not communicating with her.

Heartbreaking as it is, this is her reality, so arguing likely won’t work. Taking a little vacation from your frequent visits, while making sure someone else is checking on her, may help.

Try to remember that this isn’t about your relationship with your mom. It’s about her disease. Tread carefully and ask your siblings if and when they think you could try to see her, and go from there. If a good medical workup shows a disease that can be treated, then forget this ever happened. If this is her new personality, you’ll have to adjust by keeping in touch as best you can.

Another option is that if there’s a family friend your mother trusts, maybe that person can go to bat for you.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.