Most people think of “age-proofing” a home for an elder as installing grab bars in the shower and tacking down the throw rug in the living room to make a home physically safer for an elder. I want to take that concept one step further and offer you a quick checklist to age-proof a home against theft for elders living independently or in congregate living situations.
My primary suggestion for you is this: don’t wait until you have a health care crisis to age-proof a home against theft. Believe me, when you are responding to a health crisis with an elder the last thing you want to divert attention to is securing valuables.
- Secure financial paperwork in a locked box or drawer: This includes tax returns, titles to cars, a deed to the house or other real property, bank statements, boxes of checks, brokerage statements, any original legal documents such as a Power of Attorney or Wills, or stock certificates. *Yes, some elders want their stock certificates in their home. If you or your loved one has original stock certificates in the home, please lock them up securely. I once had to recover over $1 million in stock certificates taken from an elder’s residence by their caregiver. I can assure you, it was a stressful process for all involved and we were lucky the recovery process worked.
Here’s the golden rule: any document that contains financial information regarding assets or could be used to take money, e.g. books of checks, should be under lock and key. And put the key somewhere safe too!
- Cash, in large amounts, should be locked down and secure: If you/an elder want to keep large sums of cash in the home it should be locked in a safe or safe deposit box. A recent visitor to this site reported that $200,000 in cash had been taken from his deceased father’s home safe by one of his siblings and the ex-wife of the deceased. If you have large sums of cash in a safe at your home, here’s a suggestion – only you and your executor, or one person you trust implicitly, should have the combination.
NOTE: Some elders like having cash readily available. I understand that need/habit after talking with many clients on this topic. Please make sure it is secured and not “hidden” in places around the house. Examples of what not to do with large sums of cash from real life examples: don’t put it all in a suitcase and store it in a closet or garage; do not put thousands of dollars in unsealed envelopes and shove them under the furniture or under floor boards; and please don’t hide cash under the seat cushions of your sofa.
- Valuable jewelry should be in a safe deposit box in a bank, or in a locked box that is attached to the floor in the home, or in a safe that is impossible for anyone to remove from the home. Any jewelry that is not worn by the elder and is of value should be locked down. Jewelry should never be left out on the dresser, or in the bathroom, or on the night table by the bed as a routine place of storage.
- Secure the Credit Card, Social Security Card, Driver’s License, Military ID, and Passport:
- Credit Card: If the elder is not using a credit card, then lock it up with the financial papers, or close the account if it is no longer needed. Check drawers around the home for credit cards, pay special attention to look for store cards that may have arrived in the mail and never been activated: these cards should be locked away or destroyed. If the elder is making purchases via the internet, have them use a lower limit ($1,000) dedicated card for those purchases in case of hacking or scams.
NOTE: If a caregiver is buying groceries or paying for items and you want them to use a credit card for those purchases, please get a low limit credit card dedicated for that purpose and keep a close watch on how it is used each week. NEVER EVER give a caregiver a debit card that draws off the checking account of the elder.
- Social Security Card: There is no reason for the elder to have their Social Security card in their wallet or purse, ever! That card needs to be locked up as well, preferably in the safe deposit box or locked box that cannot be removed from the home.
- Driver’s License: If the elder no longer drives, then the driver’s license can be locked up too. Or better yet, just get a State ID card for the elder that allows them to board planes or prove identification. States offer identification cards through state motor vehicle agencies.
- Military Identification Card: Military retirees and their dependents also carry military identification cards that allow them entrance to military bases. Military id cards should definitely be locked down unless they are in use to travel on military transport, stay in guest quarters, or grocery shop at the base Exchange/PX.
- Passport: Unless the elder is traveling internationally, the passport should be in the safe deposit box. Make sure a full copy is made and saved somewhere safe in case the passport is lost or stolen while traveling. American passports are highly valued by pickpockets in foreign countries.
- Medications should be locked away: Please dedicate a locked drawer in the kitchen or bathroom for all medications, and keep that drawer locked and the key available only to one or two persons. This solves several critical problems.
- The first problem most families encounter is that the elder is not taking their medications properly. For instance, the elder may take some medications in excess or forget to take critical daily medication, either situation can be dangerous. Using a locked drawer for medications limits access to the pill bottles by the elder. Using a weekly medication box that you prefill for each day of the week helps limit access to drugs and can reduce confusion about the medication schedule.
- Second, if helpers are coming and going from the home, locking away medications stops any temptation someone might have to steal narcotics and other drugs (muscle relaxants) that are easy to sell.
- Third, and the problem no one ever wants to acknowledge, is that locking the drawer and restricting access to medications also stops family members, visiting neighbors or friends who may have addiction problems from being tempted to “borrow” a few pills from the elders.
Medication lock down is very important if hospice care is present in the home. Hospice delivers a “pain management” package of a variety of drugs to the home upon admission to hospice. This pain pack contains narcotics, such as vials of morphine, and narcotic transdermal skin patches may also be in the pack (fentanyl and morphine patches), as well as muscle relaxants. All of the narcotics and the sedation or muscle relaxants medications are quite valuable as street drugs.
Case examples of Medication Theft:
- An elder who received 90 day supplies of his drugs had a prescription for Oxycodone; he was prescribed 3 tablets a day. At one point, he ran out of his Oxycodone pills about 40 days into his 90 day refill. This caused significant worry for his adult children because he was also having memory issues. Initially his adult children thought he had over medicated himself, and they did not immediately believe him when he claimed someone was stealing his meds. It turned out that his cleaning person was stealing his Oxycodone pills methodically every week when she came to clean, and selling each tablet for $25 on the street.
- A couple in their 50s noticed that the husband’s emergency prescription bottle of Hydrocodone (for kidney stone attacks), which only had 10 tablets in it to begin with, was down to 6 tablets and the husband hadn’t taken any. Again, a cleaning person was stealing 1 tablet each time they visited the home for her own use.
Summary: It’s not just identities that are stolen these days for financial exploitation. Thieves are interested in valuable jewelry that’s easy to pawn, sterling silver, small antiques, prescription pain and muscle relaxant medications, packets of checks, and store credit cards that are left in drawers and not activated for use. And that’s just the short list of desired items by those who are determined to steal from seniors.
I hope these basic suggestions to get you started on age-proofing your home or an elder’s home to prevent thefts.
This topic is explored in far more detail in the post How to Stop Thefts from Elders and the Dead.