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Posted September 23, 2007

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Caregiving Relationship: When Mom's Jewelry Goes Missing

Q. This pertains to a caregiving relationship. A box of jewelry is missing from my mother's closet, which was reorganized by the caregiver. The caregiver takes excellent care of my parents overall, but she crossed a line several months ago in asking for a large loan from my father and did not inform us, the children. She is repaying the loan now in small amounts. I hate to think that she may have taken the jewelry.

How can I ask about it without upsetting her? Should I ask about it, since we have no proof of any kind that she might have taken it? It was on a high shelf in the closet that my frail mother could not reach on her own. My mother has moderate dementia and would not be able to give a reliable answer if we asked her about it.

Elaine L., La Canada, California.

A. It's an unfortunate fact that these kinds of things happen more often than many people realize. I am neither an attorney nor a law enforcement specialist, and this is not legal advice, but this is how I have approached this kind of dilemma in the past. If you have any doubts or questions please consult with an attorney before you do anything.

My approach is usually pragmatic: You would like to have the jewelry back, and you would like to not have to worry about the caregivers in your parents' home stealing them blind.

So, on the pragmatic side, I would not confront the caregiver until I had done a few things. I would first cook up a reason for needing the jewelry box in the next day or two. I might say something like, "Oh, that reminds me, (I/my daughter) want(s) to wear something of Mom's when I/she has a portrait made on (pick a day two or three days away). Would you stick Mom's jewelry box by the door (on the counter, etc.) so I don't forget to take it when I come by tomorrow? Give the caregiver at least overnight to retrieve the box if she, indeed, has it and the contents haven't been sold.

This might, at least, get your mother's box and contents back.

Then, if this doesn’t satisfactorily resolve the situation, you must go down an unpleasant but absolutely necessary road.

Whether the contents of the box were valuable jewelry or simply costume items, make a police report if it doesn't reappear. If you hear from the caregiver that the box can't be found, I suggest that you tell the caregiver you are puzzled, that someone must have gotten into the house, and that you will make a police report as soon as you get home. This might bring a call that the box has finally been "found."

If it doesn't show up, make the report that day. Of course, you have to do this if you want to make an insurance claim. But whether you want to make an insurance claim at this time or not, you will want an official record of the loss and descriptions of the items in case any of the pieces show up in a pawn shop.

You will also want someone experienced to question your caregiver. This is not a job you are trained to do.

Unless the police advise otherwise, also let the caregiver go that same day.

Let her go even if the jewelry box has reappeared and you have not made a police report. You will never again be able to trust her, and that is no way for your parents or for you to live. Your father will probably have to write off the "loan" as a loss and chalk it up to experience. Without proof of theft, make no accusations. Simply tell her that her services are no longer needed, effective immediately. Do this in person, and see her off the premises.

If I were you I would bring along a witness, preferably unrelated, who can verify what you said and that you made no threats or accusations.

Then immediately have all the locks changed.

After you have seen her off the premises, go through the house with a fine tooth comb to see if anything else is missing. Pay particular attention to credit cards and debit cards, checkbooks (make sure all the checks are there in numerical order), small pieces of crystal, china and silver, kitchen appliances and equipment, and tools that should be in the garage or shed.

These often "go walkabout" and aren't missed for months or years. Make a list of what you can't find for the police. Even if you've gotten the jewelry box back you might find that other items are missing.

You will have the unfortunate consequence of having no caregiver for a day or two. You can call a reputable agency and have a new caregiver in place within 24 hours in most locations. A licensed agency will have done background checks, will carry insurance, and should have bonded caregivers.

You can use an agency while you search for an independent caregiver on your own, or use their services permanently. I frankly recommend that you stick with an agency because they will also take care of all the taxes and related legal annoyances that you must deal with as a direct employer. But that is a complex subject for another time.

From this point forward, move everything of value into a room that can be locked. Put a deadbolt lock on the door and do not leave the key in the house. This will both protect your parents' remaining valuables and protect any new caregivers from suspicion in case your mother or father really MIGHT misplace these things in the future.

Please do not hesitate to make a police report if anything is missing. If you don't, this caregiver will probably just move on to another unsuspecting family and start all over again.

This answer is provided by Molly Shomer, MSSW, LMSW, a family caregiving specialist and licensed geriatric care manager. Molly, a nationally recognized expert on eldercare issues, is the author of The Insider's Guide to Assisted Living. Her website is www.eldercareteam.com, and she can be reached at molly@eldercareteam.com.

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