Elderly people caught 'shoplifting'? They may have dementia

If an elderly person shoplifts, there may be a simple explanation. He could have forgotten to pay because he has dementia.

Experts on the condition say it is one that is growing, and they are urging retailers to learn how to handle such cases.

Alzheimer's Disease Association chief executive Jason Foo recounted how one of his clients got into an argument with a shopkeeper over payment. The 79-year-old thought he had paid but the shopkeeper insisted he had not.

"The police handcuffed him and his family had to come down," Mr Foo said. "He was cleared, but it was a traumatic experience for him because he didn't understand why he was put through it."

Last Wednesday, Yishun was earmarked as Singapore's first dementia-friendly town, where residents and shopkeepers have been trained to spot and help those with the condition.

While people with severe dementia often depend on others for their daily needs, seniors with mild or moderate symptoms can still live fairly independently.

They run into trouble only when their symptoms - such as disorientation or forgetfulness - act up.

And while most will be able to recover their train of thought, retail staff must give them the time and space to do so.

"In my experience, the environment is often a trigger," said senior social work manager Wong Yock Leng, who is with Tsao Foundation's Hua Mei Dementia Care System. "When the environment becomes noisy or distracting, their thinking process becomes slower."

Ms Janice Chia, founder of social enterprise Ageing Asia, added: "You don't want to scold or embarrass them in public. What they definitely don't need is a confrontational approach."

Singapore's population of seniors is expected to double to 900,000 by 2030. Dementia affects an estimated one in 10 people aged over 60 here. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form.

While supermarkets that The Straits Times spoke to said they do not keep records of shoplifters with dementia, some, like NTUC FairPrice, have already begun to train staff in serving such customers. About 100 staff members have undergone the training so far.

A spokesman said: "The training programme aims to help service staff understand and anticipate the needs of senior customers... as well as empathise with the difficulties that seniors may encounter so they can communicate and respond better to their needs."


This article was first published on January 25, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.