Why Experts Recommend Lying to Someone with Dementia

lying to someone with dementia

Stepping into their reality isn’t the same as lying

When your older adult has Alzheimer’s or dementia, their brain may experience a different version of reality because of the damage their disease has caused.

Dementia care experts recommend stepping into your senior’s reality rather than trying to correct them or bring them back into ours. That’s because their brain is steadily losing the ability to process information. Forcing them to join us in the “real world” only causes confusion, anxiety, fear, and anger.

This technique takes some getting used to because going along with your senior’s new reality can feel like you’re lying to them. But the reality is that honesty is not always the best policy when it comes to someone with dementia.




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Telling the truth can be cruel

Most of us are taught from a young age that any kind of lying is horrible and dishonest. On top of that, we’re told never to lie to parents, spouses, and people we love and respect. So when we hear about lying to someone with dementia, it seems cruel and wrong.

But always sticking to the truth, especially about an emotional subject, is what’s most likely to cause your older adult pain, confusion, and distress.

Plus, their problems with short-term memory mean they probably won’t remember the conversation, so it will come up again. Telling the truth each time forces them to experience the fear and anxiety over and over again.

The disease prevents people from properly processing and retaining information. Is it necessary to cause them so much distress, especially when the truth you tell them is likely to be misunderstood or quickly forgotten?

 

Therapeutic fibbing helps you step into their world

An effective way to step into your older adult’s reality is to agree with whatever they say or tell harmless untruths. Experts call this therapeutic fibbing. It means saying things that are not true to avoid causing your older adult distress and to make them feel safe and comforted.

In many ways, it’s similar to telling a friend that you love the thoughtful gift they gave you, even if you don’t actually like it. Telling the absolute truth in that case wouldn’t change the situation and would only hurt your friend.

Here are two simple examples that illustrate the difference between being completely truthful and using therapeutic fibs.

1. Being completely truthful
Your mom: School is over. My mommy is coming to pick me up now. I need to go outside to wait for her!

You: You’re 89 years old. You haven’t been to school in decades. And don’t you remember that your mom died 25 years ago? You don’t need to go outside because nobody is coming to pick you up.

Your mom: What? What do you mean my mom is dead? No! She can’t be dead!! I saw her this morning! She told me she would pick me up!!! I need to go outside to wait!! (She’s crying, agitated, and screaming.)

2. Using therapeutic fibbing
Your mom: School is over. My mommy is coming to pick me up now. I need to go outside to wait for her!

You: Oh yes, it’s almost time to go. Your mom asked me to give you a snack first so you won’t get hungry on the way home. Let’s have some juice and crackers.

Your mom: Ok, I’ll have a snack.

You: (Use this distraction as an opportunity to occupy her with the snack and a fun activity until she lets go of the idea of meeting her mother.)

 

Bottom line

Always telling the truth to someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia is most likely to upset or hurt them. Therapeutic fibbing is a technique you can use to step into their new reality and spare them unnecessary pain and distress.

Using untruths to validate their feelings and reassure them is not the same as lying for a malicious reason.

 

Next Step  Why it’s not helpful to force someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia back into our reality

 

Recommended for you:
3 Ways to Respond When Someone with Alzheimer’s Says I Want to Go Home
4 Ways to Respond When Someone with Alzheimer’s Keeps Repeating Questions
Q & A: Should You Correct Someone with Alzheimer’s?

 

By DailyCaring Editorial Team
Image: Female First

16 Comments

  • Reply April 28, 2017

    Bonnie Duncan

    This is an excellent website and resource for all of us caught in this nasty web of a disease. My Mother, lost her Husband 4 months ago. She had spent the last 30 years taking care of her Husband who had suffered two strokes and a brain bleed. His first strokes were in 1981 and 6 years ago was the brain bleed. He was mentally sound, but he was physically unable to walk for the last couple of years and could help transfer him self. He was the mental being and Mom was the Physical. It was so hard to see them struggle AND refuse to have help until the very end.

    • Reply April 29, 2017

      DailyCaring

      I’m so glad our articles are helpful. It sounds like your mom took wonderful care of her husband. I hope her own health hasn’t suffered too much.

  • Reply March 11, 2017

    Elaine Mawhinney

    Do you think this still applies when the person is believing something untrue and is already distressed about it? I happily agree with my Mum when she tells me that she’s had her handbag since she started work (75 years ago). However, when she starts telling me that her deceased husband (my father) is out happily carousing, I can’t go along with her and allow her to continue believing that and being continually upset. My strategy has been to gently tell her that Dad is happy because he is in heaven and she has nothing to worry about, then change the subject. Seems to work. I’m not game to enter that reality with her. What do you think?

    • Reply March 11, 2017

      DailyCaring

      I think the number one priority is to help someone with dementia feel as happy and safe as possible. It sounds like you’re doing the right thing because your response is working well. When her version of reality is causing distress, you’re right to try to redirect her to happier thoughts.

  • Reply February 22, 2017

    nj

    Similar to the example you gave, in the latter stages of the disease, my 90 year old mom would search her building for the way out telling us that school was done and her parents were coming to pick her up. She also tried to call them on her phone (which she could no longer figure out other than to hold the handset). At first, if I explained reality to her, it resulted in a lot of emotions and I quickly stopped. I had a really hard time telling her an outright lie though. So, I ended up telling her that her parents were both “out of town” (heaven is out of town, right?) and that they knew she was safe with us (me and building staff) until they got back. Then I suggested something we could do together. She accepted that answer and we would work on a craft project together which was always calming for her. Sometimes she would worry about where she would sleep while her parents were away and I ended up telling her they had a nice room here (in her building) as though it was a hotel (she and my dad did a lot of traveling in the past).

    • Reply February 22, 2017

      DailyCaring

      Those are such wonderful and kind ways to respond to your mom’s needs and worries! It sounds like she was able to relax and feel safe, which are the top goals 🙂

  • Reply February 21, 2017

    Susan

    My mom might be in the early stages – she reminds us every time of the spot where she used to pick up my granddaughter for school every time we go by there (an example) and it gets old fast. She constantly wants attention and will even lie to relatives about how she’s being mistreated which has gotten APS called on us three times already – only to have them tell her she’s lucky she has us. How do I respond to her attention-seeking and constant reminders of things she doesn’t seem to want US to forget?

  • Reply November 16, 2016

    Sherri

    My mom had Alzheimers. It would help when we would play music from her era. It seemed to calm her down if she started to get irritated. I would also bring in pictures of her when she was little and she would go on for hours with stories. After she passed, my dad started with it. He would have difficulty remembering that she passed and would ask for her. I would have to tell little lies like “mom is taking a nap but she said to give you a kiss on the cheek for her” or “she’s getting her hair done and she’ll be in shortly but only if you eat your lunch and take a nap”, etc. Anything that would distract him and keep him calm.

    • Reply November 16, 2016

      DailyCaring

      You are amazing! These are such wonderful things to say that made your mom and dad feel happy, safe, and loved. Thank you for sharing these tips!

  • Reply October 31, 2016

    Marathon John D Gaffney

    I think ALZ patients can see RIGHT through the caregivers;We give them less credit then they deserve/get even though they still have their long-term memory in tact!!!

    • Reply November 1, 2016

      DailyCaring

      In the early stages, someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia is still able to use logic and reason. That’s not the right time to use these suggestions. It really depends on how far their condition has progressed. These ideas are better suited to the time when a person with dementia has been significantly affected, has poor short term memory, and primarily needs to feel validated and safe. Alzheimer’s and dementia affect much more than just memory. These conditions attack the brain itself and erode the connections and pathways that are essential for proper brain function. Even if someone has their long term memories deep inside them, it won’t help their day-to-day function.

  • Reply August 31, 2016

    Jeanette

    My mother has Alzheimer’s. We like to call it ‘creative truths’. When she asks about her parents. We tell her they are in the town they are buried. (Not that they are deceased) She accepts that and moves on. She also comments that she is sure her mother is NOT happy about being there. lol! Choose to smile!

    • Reply August 31, 2016

      Connie Chow

      “Creative truths” — love it! It’s wonderful that you’ve found a calm, reassuring way to answer a tough question.

  • Reply May 28, 2016

    Cheryl

    I look,forward to your daily tips

    • Reply May 28, 2016

      Connie Chow

      Thanks Cheryl! We’re so glad you find them helpful.

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