Not All Lies Are Bad
I lie to my mother all the time. Not hurtful lies meant to deceive. Little white lies meant to help her world make sense and feel that she’s still in control of everything. Just as she always had been.
When Mom was first diagnosed with dementia and I knew I would be her primary caregiver, I determined to never keep anything from her. To always tell her the unvarnished truth. It only made sense to me, at the time. Mom and I have shared a wonderfully close relationship based on unconditional love, respect and trust. I had never lied to her. Mutual honesty and frankness were the cornerstones of our relationship and connection. To start lying to her now was a betrayal of all that.
The Truth Hurts, Sometimes
But the dynamic is different when you are dealing with someone who has memory loss and cognitive dysfunction. Telling them the truth, unvarnished and all the time, can hurt more than a little untruth. I found this out pretty quickly.
When Mom asks now what happened to her living room furniture, I lie, and tell her she sold it. SHE sold it. I found that telling her the truth—that my sister had donated it to the Humane Society because I had been unsuccessful at selling it—only upset Mom.
With the truth, “No one asked me if I wanted to get rid of my couch? It was in perfectly good condition. You could have sold it for $500, and you just gave it away!”
With the lie, “Oh. How much did I get for it?”
The same goes for her car, condo and the spare bedroom furniture, her myriad of credit cards that I closed, and the bulk of her kitchen ware that is now with my sister, niece and nephew. I have standard, tried and very tested answers for all of those questions. Once I knew the truth wouldn’t fly, I started twisting it a bit until I found the perfect white lie that set her mind at ease, and didn’t put her into apoplectic fits of feeling out of control. All the standard lies involve her making the decisions, and having taken all the actions. She can’t remember one way or the other, but if she believes she made the decision for a reason, even though can’t remember why, it’s plausible.
Deja Vu All Over Again
Of course, these little webs of fantasy don’t stop the questions. I field the same questions about all the same things in her former, independent life, all the time, every day. She and I are in an infinite loop of car, condo, couch and cookware. But instead of her getting upset or worse, angry at me, we smooth over the rough spots and go merrily on like we always have before.
Do I feel guilty about it? Yeah, a little. I’ve never been comfortable with lying, to anyone for any reason, even when lying was actually the diplomacy of politics in my former career. But that’s a different kind of lying, for a vastly different reason. Telling a former boss that she had a fundamental lack of understanding about the subject I was trying to relate to her was, in hindsight, not so smart. Telling Mom she gave her daybed to her grandson for his daughter’s use makes Mom feel like she helped out the kids. The guilt I feel over it doesn’t rest in the fact that I’m lying. It rests in the regret I feel for what Mom is going through, and the acknowledgement that there is only so much that I can actually do for her, now.
So, yes, sometimes it is not only ok to lie, it’s the only truly compassionate alternative you have.