It is called therapeutic lying, and 98% of nurses admit to doing it when it is in the best interest of their patient. Is it right? Is it wrong? Can telling a “white lie” to a senior loved one with dementia or Alzheimer's Disease be considered forgivable for the greater good? It is a dilemma that has many senior caregivers morally torn. Here are the arguments for both sides to help you decide.
No one takes pleasure in lying to a senior loved one, but the reality is, it may be necessary. The truth can hurt. As a senior caregiver, you want your loved one to feel safe and at peace. The truth can be upsetting, and telling a “white lie” can help you take the kinder approach. A senior with dementia or Alzheimer’s may repeatedly ask about a deceased family member or spouse. It is painful to remind them over and over that someone special to them passed away years ago. Also seniors with dementia can be unreasonable, and arguing over a false reality can be stressful for everyone involved.
Examples of therapeutic lies:
- Your senior parent wants to drive to the store. Knowing this is not possible, you say the car is at the shop for a tune-up or the store is already closed.
- Your senior loved one gets anxiety over doctor visits. You decide to take them out to lunch and just happen to need to stop by the doctor’s office to “pick something up” on the way home.
- Your elderly father insists there is a stranger in the bathroom. You tell him you just checked and the stranger must have left.
- Your mom says that her deceased sister is taking her shopping this afternoon. You tell her that Aunt Jane can’t make it, but you would be happy to take her instead.
Honesty is the best policy. Whether it is in your senior patient’s best interest or not, lying cannot be justified in the minds of some caregivers. A patient need to be able to trust and respect their caregiver, and lying is a quick way to lose that bond. Dementia is a complex disease, and you never know when that “white lie” can come back to haunt you.
Correcting a senior with dementia can be exhausting and often futile. When a loved one’s perception of reality is distorted, you might find it helpful to enter their reality. Here are some other strategies that help you side step “lying”.
- Choose not to correct. There is no harm in letting a loved one disconnect from reality if there is no immediate danger. If your senior loved one thinks they are going dancing on Friday with an old friend just let it go. Don’t correct them, but at the same time, don’t take them to pick out new dancing shoes. Let your loved one live in that world, and don’t be so quick to bring them back to reality. What does it hurt if they think they are a “volunteer” at the senior day care center or that JFK is president? Pick your battles and move on with your day.
- Divert attention. Let’s say your senior loved one is asking about the whereabouts of their deceased spouse. You don’t want to tell them harsh reality again, but yet you are uneasy saying they will be home from the store soon. In this case, change the subject. Remind them of a positive memory of that family member and engage them in the new conversation. Ask them a new question and chances are the original question will be forgotten.
When it comes to therapeutic lying, keep the big picture in mind. It is important to treat your aging family member with the utmost dignity and respect. Aim for peace and security for your senior loved one and balance your approaches. Each situation is unique so trust your instincts.
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