If a person with dementia walks out of a shop without paying it’s rarely a deliberate act. Here’s how you can deal with it – or to make it a little less embarrassing

Ever felt a hand on your shoulder as you leave a shop? Of course not. In fact, the idea that you may one day be accused of shoplifting probably strikes you as ludicrous. But if you have dementia there’s a fair chance this could happen. For the sad fact is, people with the condition are far more likely to forget to pay for their shopping than people without.

Whether it’s a pint of milk, a bottle of wine or a few random items thrown into a shopping basket, if your loved one walks out of a store without paying for goods, it’s largely down to the store itself, and the people who work there, as to whether they’ll be treated kindly and compassionately, or be accused of theft.

Thankfully, awareness of dementia is growing and more people – including shop assistants and managers – understand that forgetting to pay is a hazard of the condition, rarely a deliberate act, and prosecutions for theft are therefore rare. However, the fact remains that being confronted about unpaid for goods can still be an excruciatingly embarrassing and stressful experience for a person with dementia, and for their family, too.

‘I remember receiving a phone call from a very curt young supermarket manager saying my mother had tried to walk out without paying for a pack of toilet rolls,’ recalls Theresa, a visitor to Unforgettable. ‘He realised she wasn’t trying to steal, but he did say she shouldn’t be shopping on her own. I was mortified but also angry. Mum must have spent thousands of pounds in that store over the years and here was this young man giving me a ticking off for letting her do something she still enjoyed and usually managed quite well.’

Sadly, the struggle to allow loved ones to retain their independence on the dementia journey is often littered with unhelpful experiences like this. Forgetting to pay can happen in the very early stages of dementia, sometimes before a formal diagnosis has been made – it can even be the trigger for one. ‘We knew Dad was getting a bit forgetful,’ says Pete, ‘But when he picked up two bottles of wine in an off-licence and calmly walked out without paying, I became very worried and made an appointment with his GP.’

Unforgettable blogger Dianne Wilkinson, who’s lived with early-onset dementia for two years, is still a savvy shopper who likes to use several different supermarkets. Thankfully she manages pretty well and has never walked out without paying… but totally understands why it can happen.

‘I do sometimes get a bit panicky at the till, especially if I can hear people tutting behind me in the queue,’ says Dianne. ‘I’ve lost my bank card at least four times, though thankfully it’s always been returned to me. Once, the girl on the till just sat there watching me getting into a right old state without doing anything to help. But another time I had a lovely assistant who just said, “it’s alright, we’ll start again.” She was so nice. She even gave me double points on my reward card!’
One of the main sources of anxiety for Dianne – and probably many others with dementia – is self- service check-outs.

‘I dread using them,’ she admits. ‘But I was in a supermarket the other week and all the normal check-outs were closed so I had no choice. An assistant offered to watch me while I used the self- service machine but he said he wasn’t allowed to do it for me. I still must have done something wrong because when I tried to leave the store an alarm went off. It was awful, I was so embarrassed, I just wanted to get out of that shop. I definitely won’t use one anymore.’

A recent survey by the Alzheimer’s Society revealed that 8 out of 10 people with dementia still list shopping as a favourite activity. So how can they continue to enjoy it without being constantly embarrassed – or worse?

Here’s a few ideas

1. Plan ahead. Confronting the issue head on. ‘I knew Margaret would be devastated if she was ever stopped in a shop because she’d forgotten to pay,’ says Mike. ‘But she still loved going around the supermarket on her own and I didn’t want to take that away from her until it really did become unsafe.’ Mike’s solution was to speak to the manager of the store. Fortunately, Margaret was amenable to the idea too and they arranged an appointment together. ‘The manager was very friendly, introduced Margaret to his team and explained she might sometimes need a bit of help. She’s been absolutely fine since.’

2. Set up a weekly tab. This works well with smaller, local stores and means your loved one can pop in and get regular basic items without paying.

3. Try speaking to staff. Give them a photograph of your loved one and your contact details so that you can either return the items yourself or you can come in and pay for them.

4. Encourage them to shop mid-week. Stores are quieter and less busy. Noise and crowds can make a person with dementia feel more disorientated and anxious which, in turn, could increase the likelihood of them walking out of the store without paying.

5. Don’t make a big fuss. If they have forgotten to pay don't make a big deal about it with them. Remember, it wasn’t their fault and no amount of berating will prevent them from doing it again. In fact, some carers find that the more they talk about it, the worse it can get.