I stole an old lady's purse.
I know that doesn't sound good on the surface. Stealing is wrong—stealing from the old and vulnerable is probably something closer to reprehensible. But before you jump to any conclusions and get all judgy, let me tell you the whole story.
I have a 96-year-old cousin with no children—let's call her Betty. My sister and I treat her like an honorary grandmother. For the past 20 years, she's been included in all of our family birthday dinners, Christmas celebrations, picnics, and the like.
Last Halloween, we decided to have a costume party at Betty's house. I was dressed in a priest's costume and happened to carry a red leather backpack instead of my purse. Betty loved that backpack. She wanted to touch it, and she mentioned its pretty color at least 100 times—although it was a little difficult for her to gush with a leopard mask on.
I decided that was my cue to buy her a red leather purse for Christmas.
I carefully browsed through numerous bags, trying to find one made of supple, red leather. Finally, I landed on the perfect one. The time came for me to give it to her—she loved the hue and the way the leather felt in her hands. I was sure she'd be carrying it the next time I saw her.
By Easter, everything had changed. Betty fell and broke her knee. The dementia that had been lurking, mostly unnoticed, around the edges of her mind became more pronounced. I inherited Betty's affairs.
Don't get the wrong idea. Betty is still as vibrant as ever—she's still a great conversationalist, she loves to play dominoes, and she recognizes everyone who comes to visit.
She just has some trouble holding a new idea in her head, or remembering that I visited the day before. And sometimes when she tells a story, she bounces back and forth in time and mixes up the generations, so that her grandmother is talking to my kids.
In due course, the care of Betty's home also fell to me, and I decided to do some organizing. I knew the den was piled with mail that had to be sorted, but that looked too daunting—so I thought I'd start with something easy like the guest room. I mean, who keeps much of anything in a guest room? You want it all neat & tidy and ready for strangers at the drop of a hat, right?
I opened the door to begin the project.
Before me stood a guest bed covered in boxes, bags, books, jewelry, blankets, wind chimes, and other assorted gifts. Layers of them! I didn't know these were gifts just because the wrapping paper and bags—I knew because I recognized many of them. I saw the house shoes I gave Betty two birthdays ago. I noticed a fleece throw my sister gave her last Christmas. I unwrapped one to discover a box of chocolates best used by July 2007.
And then, I see it — the red leather bag I spent so much time choosing.
Without any hesitation, I snatched it up, removed the paper inside, and carried it into the cluttered den, where I moved everything out of my black purse and put it into the red one.
A little later, I went to visit Betty. I walked into her room with the red bag's wide strap sitting solidly on my shoulder. Betty immediately brightened and said, "Oh, look at that purse! That's the prettiest red color. That's just beautiful."
Minutes later, her caregiver came in and she said, "Look at that pretty red purse. That leather looks so soft. Did you see it?"
By this point, I'm laughing inside thinking, I'm glad you like the bag I just stole from your guest bed!
On another visit it happened again. Betty admired and touched the red leather bag once more. She even asked me who bought it for me. I wasn't really sure whether to say that she did or I did. I was too busy laughing at the irony of the situation.
If the day comes that she recognizes the bag as hers, I'll fess up and tell her I took it off the bed to give it some use because I thought that was better than just letting it lay there. There's no reason for me not to tell her the truth about a purse. We've had much more difficult conversations, and I always level with her.
It isn't easy to watch a loved one become more forgetful—there aren't a lot of lighthearted moments in long-term care. I'll take mine where I can. If Betty enjoys seeing me carry the purse I bought for her while I have a chuckle over “stealing” it, I don't really see the harm.