Why I made my 90-Year-Old Mom a Fake ID

An Out-of-the-Box Rummaging Hack

As a family, we are fully committed to living “in the moment” with our mother as she progresses through the stages of memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, out-of-the-box creativity has been essential to us - like the story of the fake ID, which became the dignity hack we used to help with purse rummaging anxiety.

We knew losing a purse might happen for Mom who was forgetting more frequently. But in her mind, leaving home without a purse, was not really an option for a ‘normal’ lady. She put her foot down; she would not relinquish her purse. 

For safety we had removed credit cards, insurance info and some personal information from her wallet. Sure enough, eventually her purse went permanently missing.


Idea #1: A Backup, Wallet-less Purse

Easy enough to fix, we got a backup purse for outings and just excluded a wallet. Problem solved, right? When we headed out I simply mentioned to my mother that she, “Left her wallet at my house (a fiblet,) and we would pick it up later.”

However, due to her short-term storage and recall issues she would repeatedly look in her purse and not find the wallet. I simply repeated that it had been left at my house. Yet after awhile, the purse rummaging behavior became more frantic. The wallet-less purse idea worked, but only briefly.  

Mom sat me down for a wallet chat: “We have to find my wallet.” Turns out, in her mind, without her wallet she could not pay her way. I was focused on the purse, yet it was the lack of a wallet and money in the purse that was also increasing her anxiety.  To her, not finding a wallet meant her independence and dignity were in question, especially in a world where many things were “unexplainably, slowing, slipping away.”

Idea #2: The New Backup Wallet

Again, we thought we had the solution - put a modified wallet back in the purse. Easy to accomplish, right? We put a wallet back in her purse. In fact, I purchased two identical wallets - just in case. 

The next trip she again looked in her purse for her wallet, found it, opened it, but exclaimed, “This is not my wallet!” Okay, fair point.  This new wallet was fairly empty. We had focused on having cash available in the wallet. Now, I understand that she did not see her photo ID, or any credit cards in it - just some cash.

Idea #3:  Fake ID ~ Third Time’s Charm

One of her caregivers said, “make her a fake ID, and put that in her wallet.”  Great idea. Being several decades over 21, a typical time folks would create fake ID, I turned a few heads at the office store when I said, “Can you help me make a fake ID?” I explained it was not for me, but for my 90-year-old mother. That drew a few understanding smiles, as we created a laminated official looking card without personal identifiers.

To complete the wallet I used expired plastic gift cards, simulated credit cards from offers in the mail, old store receipts and, of course, cash and change. 

On our next outing, I slipped the new personalized and de-identified wallet in her purse. When she got her purse, she began rummaging, found her wallet, opened the very real looking wallet, looked to see if she had any money and that was the end of the rummaging behavior. That was a year ago. Third times a charm!


Learning to Speak Behavior as a Second Language

The truth is that with Alzheimer’s disease people move from rational understanding to ‘living in the moment’. In our mother’s case, she often can’t remember the topic of conversation 5 minutes ago, but she still remembers anxiety from one outing to the next about her missing wallet. This is understandable because emotional memory is stored in one of the last brain structures to be attacked by Alzheimer’s. 

Behavior is communication. My mom didn’t tell me, “It makes me anxious when I have no money or ability to pay,” she showed me through her behavior. I’m learning to speak Behavior as a second language. 

As a second language, it can sometimes take a little while for me to understand. At first, I thought she was telling me she wanted her wallet. It took me a few tries to get it right, as it may take you as you try to interpret your parent’s behavior. But keep at it. I hope you will find that the helping with your loved one’s dignity is well worth the time and effort you put into leaning to speak Behavior… We sure did.

Debby Dodds is the team Gerontologist at Generation Connect, and she believes that tablet computers are invaluable for helping caregivers think outside-the-box.