The Case of the Missing Sweater
Why memory failures can lead people with Alzheimer’s disease to become paranoid.
Posted Nov 26, 2018
She couldn’t find her sweater anywhere. Naturally, she began to wonder who stole her sweater. Thus began the case of the missing sweater.
We all have this common experience. We search for something and fail to find it. The keys aren’t in the correct place. Something has been moved in the kitchen. Or our favorite sweater is missing. Maybe you misplaced it. But haven’t you ever wondered if that critical thing was taken or moved by someone else? We ask around the house. Have you seen the keys? Where did you put the keys? Sometimes we become convinced that someone moved something on purpose. Sometimes we wonder who took our sweater.
In trying to solve the case of the missing sweater, I asked a simple question. Was the sweater stolen or merely misplaced? But this case is complicated because she has Alzheimer’s disease. I knew she had merely forgotten what we had done with the sweater. Nonetheless, she was sure someone had stolen it.
Alzheimer’s disease has a large set of consequences. When a person experiences repeated memory failures, they may not realize they are having memory problems. This can result in someone repeating a question or even an entire conversation. Admittedly, we all sometimes forget that we already told someone something and start to tell them the same story. But someone with Alzheimer’s constantly repeats questions and stories. They often repeat themselves within a few minutes resulting in conversations that are loops of the same conversation.
Losing things is another common memory failure. We all lose things. We misplace our car keys. We can’t find a note we made. I sometimes even forget where I put my phone and then I have my wife call my phone so we can find it. In Alzheimer’s disease, these types of memory failures become more frequent. Making the problem worse is that an individual with Alzheimer’s disease may forget the correct place for something and put it somewhere it doesn’t belong. A cup may end up in the cupboards of the bathroom rather than the kitchen. A piece of trash may find its way into a dresser drawer (which can be a problem if the trash is some unfinished food). Someone with Alzheimer’s disease is constantly struggling to find things.
Recently, we moved a relative with Alzheimer’s into assisted living. She had been living alone in a condo. We had a support team while she lived independently, but her physical and mental health had declined enough that she was no longer safe living alone. Unfortunately, she couldn’t take everything with her when she moved from her home into assisted living. Choices had to be made. When you move an elderly relative, you should try to take as much as possible; try to make their new home as similar as possible to their previous one. This provides consistency and that aids memory, cognitive functioning, and emotional stability. But nonetheless, choices had to be made. Which furniture. Which dishes. Which clothing. She played a primary role in deciding what to take with her as she moved.
That particular sweater didn’t make the cut. She couldn’t take all her clothes. Everything was fine for a while. But after a few months, as the weather began to cool, she started searching for her sweater. She couldn’t find it.
How do you respond when you can’t find something? I typically assume I misplaced it. I also wonder if someone else in my house has used the thing I’m looking for. Maybe someone else did the laundry and put my sweater in the wrong place. Or maybe someone finally threw out my old sweater.
My relative couldn’t find her sweater. Unfortunately, she didn’t remember that we didn’t bring all her clothes when she moved. When I visited recently, she didn’t ask me about her sweater. Instead, she had already arrived at a conclusion. She told me that someone had stolen her sweater. We responded that she probably had not included that sweater in the set of clothes that she brought with her. She insisted that she would have brought the sweater. She loved that sweater – it was a light-weight cardigan style that zipped up. Of course, she brought it. Theft was the only possible explanation. Someone must have stolen it. People take things in this place, she told us.
If you have a relative with Alzheimer’s disease, you’ve probably had a conversation like this. Some object has gone missing. They quickly conclude that someone has stolen it. Often, they suspect family members of taking things. They may start to distrust their families. And they may suspect their families are taking everything.
In some ways, the person with Alzheimer’s is just like the rest of us. When we can’t find something, we wonder who moved it, who is using it, and where someone else put it. But when we eventually find the thing (like our own sweater), we often remember that we actually put it in this place. Maybe we put it there for some special reason.
The difference with Alzheimer’s is in how often they have this experience and how quickly they assume that someone has stolen it. They are constantly struggling to find things. They can’t remember where they put something and when they find it they wonder who put it there.
When something is lost, the person with Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t seem to forget this. You would think that with their memory problems that they would forget about the missing item, the lost sweater. Instead, they are constantly reminded of the missing item. They frequently encounter a need for the thing and start searching for it. Repetitively, they fail to find it. Again and again, they can’t find it. Eventually, they conclude that someone has stolen it.
If they find the item (or someone finds it for them), they don’t recall putting it there. They wonder who is hiding things from them. If it can’t be found, they cannot recall what they might have done with the critical thing – like my relative who assumed she would have brought the sweater with her. Someone else must have done this, must have taken the critical sweater.
How can you solve the case of the missing and lost items? I have a little bit of advice for providing support to people with Alzheimer’s disease. First, if you can find the item, that’s wonderful. We should all become used to searching for things that have been put in the wrong place, especially when supporting someone with Alzheimer’s. If some member of the family has already taken the item, then bring it back. Even if your relative already gave the thing to that person (they may have forgotten that they gave the item away). Keep the critical items with the person as long as possible.
In the case of the missing sweater, unfortunately, we had already given away the surplus clothing. We couldn’t retrieve the missing sweater. So we did the next best thing. We told her what had happened. Then we quickly went shopping with her for a replacement. With a new sweater, she settled down again. When she searched, she could always find a sweater. Thus, she was able to stop searching for the missing sweater. She forgot the forgotten sweater.