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Dream Stealers

This is chapter eleven of a new book by Grace Rudolph, Ice Floes and Polar Bears: An Inside Look at Nursing Homes. You may purchase this book of nursing home articles by clicking here.

One of the important issues to stress with new employees during general orientations is that you have zero tolerance for stealing. Lay it out loud, clear and up front. Let everyone know that for every action there is a reaction. If a theft occurs an investigation begins. It starts as an internal investigation and can lead to the involvement of the administration, the police and, sometimes an insurance company. Once the awesome process begins it takes on a life of its own and reminds me of the Tina Turner favorite, Big Wheel Keeps On Turnin.' Eventually, even if you've changed jobs and moved on someone will come knocking at your door and, darlin', it won't the Prize Patrol.

Asking people who are long-term health providers about employee theft can open heated discussions. Some administrators believe a low-keyed investigation is best but an administrator I once worked for believed it's best to be up front. Be honest. Let families know you don't take theft lightly, that you are investigating the theft and when the thief is found they will be prosecuted.

Residents in nursing homes are vulnerable and usually unable to involve themselves in the investigation process but, not always. Remember, these are folks who watch endless reruns of Perry Mason, The Practice, and LA Law. They know the drill. What seems like a cognitive loss can be nothing more than a hearing deficit. If an employee walks into the room of someone they think is confused and volunteers to clean their diamond engagement ring they'd better bring the ring back with facets flashing or they could find themselves in a courtroom with a disheveled court appointed attorney at their side and, hidden from view, a fragile little woman in a wheel chair with a cop at her side who turns up her hearing aid, points a finger in their direction and mutters, "Gottcha."

True story. It happened in a facility where I once worked.

There are times when employees are accused unjustly and the emotional impact is devastating.

Another time, different facility, I was asked to investigate the theft of a pocketbook. A pleasantly confused, delusional and at times paranoid woman in her late eighties confided to an aide that one of the cleaning crew had made off with her purse. The man who cleaned her room was a gray haired dignified father of four, grandfather of eight, who fled from terrorists in his homeland only to find himself in the clutches of an elderly ‘terrorist' in a nursing home.

He was crushed. "Madam," he told me, "in my country I was the treasurer of a bank. I was responsible for the safe keeping on money for many, many customers. I never stole a penny." While we were talking the purse was located under a stack of old Christmas cards. Exactly where the lady had tucked it for safe keeping while she watched The Days of Our Lives in the TV room. By the time the purse was located she had forgotten it was lost but the self-esteem of the accused was destroyed and no amount of emotional support and reassurance restored it to him.

Sometimes theft involves confusion and chocolate.

It would be an unusual nursing home that didn't have their fair share of rummagers. A confused resident named Ed, a diabetic with a sweet tooth, began foraging first in his roommate's, then in other resident's dressers and closets for cookies and candies. I called his family and suggested they bring in sugar-free candy before slipping into the break room to buy myself a Snickers bar that was later discover and devoured by Ed.

They brought in the candy; bland, pastel, healthy and hermetically sealed in clear cellophane. Ed wolfed down three of these innocuous pellets and then went prowling for the real stuff, only this time he brought a friend who acted as a look out for a percentage of the take. This Bonnie and Clyde duo drove everyone wild. Redirection, intervention and fifteen minute checks simply did not work. Ed and his partner in crime were always caught and were always adamant they were innocent and hadn't taken a thing, even as they were being frisked by angry residents who were retrieving cookies, crackers, and M&Ms from their pockets as the staff tried unsuccessfully to intervene and redirect.

In the best of all possible worlds there would be no such thing as theft in protective environments and all staff would be surrogate family members who were above reproach, however, the cold reality is that nursing home communities like all other communities are simply microcosms of our larger world. We may have a difficult time redirecting rummagers or reorienting confused and paranoid residents but we should always be proactive in addressing thefts by staff. Slam them. Slam them hard and make an example of them. Make sure that during that first orientation new employees hear the message that once an investigation begins the 'Big Wheel Keeps on Turnin.'

When ten dollars disappeared from a resident's room recently I was beside myself. The investigation hit a stonewall until the morning I jotted down a note and put it on the door to the employee's bathroom. In the afternoon a plain white envelope mysteriously appeared on the desk behind the nurse's station. No names or identification, only a plain white envelope containing two five-dollar bills.

What was the message on the note?
Mrs. Soandso in room 309 is missing ten bucks.

Put it back! NOW! Sincerely, T. Turner


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