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Nursing Home Theft

The Sneaky Sack™ helps seniors protect themselves from theft in nursing homes and other related places.

Nursing home patients make attractive targets for thieves who can operate in a long-term care facility with the ease of a fox in a henhouse. Although the theft of possessions is one of the most common problems that nursing home residents experience, most of the information about this phenomenon comes not from the gerontological literature but from the popular media and from anecdotes.

Residents have a right to a safe environment. A safe environment is a place where one's personal belongings such as clothes, jewelry, cosmetics, eyeglasses, hearing aids and dentures are not lost or stolen. In a perfect world, no one would have to worry about such things, however, because these issues are common place, the Sneaky Sack™ is a perfect place for storage of sensitive items.

To provide a more systematic look at nursing home theft, a survey that reviews employees and family members in 47 nursing homes in 10 states, found that 25.4% of the employees reported seeing their co-workers stealing from nursing home patients or suspecting them of doing so. A small minority of employees reported that they themselves had stolen from patients. Slightly less than one-fifth of the family members said they believed some of their relatives' possessions had been stolen by nursing home employees.

What makes a perfect crime is not a perfect criminal but a perfect victim. Elderly patients are just that. They are often functionally disabled or cognitively impaired, making them unable to keep up with their belongings. One analysis that can be applied to nursing home theft is the routine-activity theory, which surmises that successful theft requires the presence of a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of capable guardians.

For example, in nursing homes, staff are typically poorly paid and overworked. A staffer who is also having conflicts with the residents might feel a desire to steal from them. Suitable targets for theft are items that are easy to carry and conceal, such as money, clothing or jewelry. By law, nursing home patients' doors cannot be locked, and most patients' rooms have no locks on the drawers and closets. Therefore, a resident's possessions are commonly accessible to thieves. In addition, daily activities, such as meals, require patients to be out of their rooms at regularly scheduled times. These conditions make it difficult for a facility's "capable guardians" to safeguard the personal property of patients constantly.

The nursing home environment itself may contribute to an atmosphere of permissiveness about theft. For example, we have found that some employees rationalize stealing by saying to themselves and one another that the patient is mentally incompetent and will not miss some items. When a theft takes place, it is not unusual for administrators to deny the occurrence or ignore it rather than believe their employees are dishonest.

In the course of our interviews, we found that when employees were asked what they thought would happen if they stole something from a patient, a substantial proportion felt that their chances of getting caught were small. When we asked what would happen if employees were caught stealing, a majority of respondents said that they expected to be fired but not reported to the police. Many administrators hesitate to get law enforcement involved. As one administrator said, "Who wants the publicity?"

One reason that researchers have ignored this subject is that the covert nature of illegal behavior makes it difficult for investigators to gather data. In several studies, we found that nursing home administrators and owners often were reluctant to have their employees and the families of patients participate in a survey about theft. They were even more reluctant to have us come to their facilities to interview staff, patients and families of patients. Some of the administrators' objections were, "We are afraid it will alarm the patients and family members." "It could be detrimental to the reputation of the home," and "Why give the staff ideas?"

Even though nursing home workers were assured that their anonymity would be protected, many felt that their answers could be traced back to them, and that they would be fired. Also most nursing home administrators feel it is a breach of confidentiality to give out the names and home addresses of their employees and patients' family members. In addition, patients and their families are often reluctant to discuss this difficult subject because they fear retaliation by the staff. After all, the same people who steal from residents are often the very ones on whom patients are dependent for their care.

Yet unless the research community takes on these challenges, opportunities to understand this pervasive problem and conceive effective strategies to deal with it will continue to give way to the sad result of thefts and the periodic reactions of lawmakers to sensational media investigations.


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