DEAR ABBY: You hear so much about caregivers abusing children in the home, but the same thing can happen to the elderly when you rely on home care. My mother and stepfather had live-in care until he passed away. My sister and I were left with full responsibility for Mom, who is 95 and has Alzheimer's disease. We debated putting her in a nursing home, but decided she'd be better off in familiar surroundings, so we kept her at home with "Inga," a live-in caregiver who had been recommended by a previous live-in. We visited Mom often, usually the two of us together.
Mom can barely walk with a walker, so we don't try to take her out anymore. Imagine our shock when the police called one night, saying they had Mom at the police station. Inga had been arrested for shoplifting. After being put into a squad car, she told police she had left Mother in a car in the parking lot. However, she refused to tell them who my mother was! Miraculously, Mom remembered her address, but not her name. The police went to her home, found someone in the house (to this day we don't know who), and located my phone number.
We had questioned Inga about missing items at the house. Food disappeared unusually fast and so did detergent. Phone bills and utilities were also higher than usual. We don't know how many times Mom had been left alone in the car during Inga's shoplifting sprees. Because of her poor memory, Mom couldn't tell us. When we cleaned out Inga's closet, we found many stolen items. Later, neighbors told us they had seen strange people coming and going out the back door. We suspect they had been sleeping in the attic or the basement.
We now have another live-in who seems trustworthy, but my sister and I drive by the house occasionally at night, talk to Mom's neighbors, and vary the days and hours we visit. No one in this situation should have a set routine. Relatives should drop in unexpectedly and keep their eyes open. If something doesn't seem right, it probably isn't. -- STILL IN SHOCK IN ILLINOIS
DEAR STILL IN SHOCK: Your letter is sure to be a wake-up call for many children of older adults. The obvious lesson to be learned is the importance of hiring through a reputable agency. When selecting and evaluating a respite-care service, help is available from the local Alzheimer's Association. In its "Respite Care Guide: How to Find What's Right for You," the association suggests that a prospective caregiver be asked the following questions:
-- "What is your training?"
-- "Why are you interested in this job?"
-- "What are your past/current home-care experiences?"
-- "Have you ever worked with someone with dementia?"
-- "When/how often are you available? Do you have backup if you're unable to come?"
-- "Are you bonded?"
-- "Who can I talk to at your agency if I have a concern?"
-- "Tell me about yourself ... your interests? Hobbies?"
-- "Why did you leave your past job?"
-- "Do you have any references?"
Do not settle on someone who doesn't make you feel comfortable. Interview several helpers, if necessary, to find the right person for your particular situation.
To purchase the "Respite Care Guide," call the Alzheimer's Association's toll-free number: (800) 272-3900. The cost is $1.75 per booklet. The guide can also be purchased at local Alzheimer's Association chapters.