When Honesty Isn’t the Best Policy

When communicating with someone with Alheimer's or dementia, honesty isn't always the best policy.

When Honesty Isn’t the Best Policy: Communicating with a Loved One with Alzheimer’s or Dementia

By Caitlin Hastie, Certified Dementia Practitioner Program Coordinator, Respite Care Charleston

Everyday around 4:30pm, Fran asked where her husband Bob was.  She kept forgetting he’d passed away several months before.  Her children were left with a decision: Tell Fran the truth each day and repeatedly traumatize her, or tell her something less upsetting, like he was at work.

Fran’s children chose what dementia professionals call a therapeutic lie – a tool for caregivers to keep their loved ones with dementia calm and content. (A therapeutic lie is NEVER told to cause harm.)

In telling their mom a therapeutic lie, Fran’s children avoided causing her distress and created an opportunity to redirect her attention. They asked what they should cook for dad for dinner, talked about his favorite meals and reminded her of the terrible ‘dad jokes’ he loved to share at the table.  This gave the family a chance to reminisce about their beautiful life together.

If your loved one’s confused and their reality is distorted, meet them where they are rather than challenging what they believe.  When your dad says he’s full yet hasn’t eaten all day, don’t try to correct him or argue.  He may become frustrated or angry about something that doesn’t match what he believes to be true.  Instead, ask him to taste the “new” recipe you made – even if it’s something he’s eaten hundreds of times. Although you may not want to lie, sometimes it’s better to let your loved be content with their version of reality.

Similarly, if your wife says she wants to take the car to get groceries, there’s no benefit in telling her she can no longer drive.  Thinking she’s lost her independence may cause her to become frightened and cry or lash out at you.  It’s scary when you can’t trust your own memory. Try using a therapeutic lie – her car is in the shop and you can go to the store together later.

Not only can a therapeutic lie keep your loved one from getting upset, it can also open the door to some fun. When Mary claimed she was married to one of the Beatles, her daughter didn’t correct her.  She asked which one and how they met, then turned on Mary’s favorite Beatles song!  By changing your priorities from being right to enjoying right now, you can avoid a fight and focus on fun!

For more communication tips and tricks or other support services for caregivers and their loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, contact Respite Care Charleston at 843-647-7405 or Info@RespiteCareCharleston.org.  RCC is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.