I told my first big lie last week. Nothing earthshaking. I wasn’t lying to Congress. I wasn’t lying to the police. I wasn’t lying in court. I was lying to…my elderly mother!!!! Yes, the time had come for me to begin telling, what is called in senior land, the “therapeutic lie.”
What is the therapeutic lie? The therapeutic lie is a communication strategy increasingly showing up in medical practice in which an elderly person is deliberately deceived for reasons considered in their best interest (paraphrased somewhat from Psychiatric Times).
However diabolical the tone of this definition, such a lie is usually told with good intentions, based on keeping the elderly person in a secure and stable framework.
Why the sudden need for the therapeutic lie? As I continue to travel back frequently to my family’s hometown (another post for another day!) my mom’s reaction to these trips has evolved from not wanting me to be away (challenging personality reaction) to becoming upset and insisting she also needs to “go home” (dementia reaction). As you might imagine, her resulting anxiety and agitation was not a good thing for anyone, including her! So based on her reaction to my last two recent trips (and the recommendation of her best helper), I set sail, so to speak, on new caregiving waters during my latest trip.
Instead of just telling some little white lies – saying I was at work when I was actually in flight, saying I was at one airport when I was at another – I was now to give birth to the REALLY BIG LIE: telling her I wasn’t out of town at all!
So for 5 days I dutifully called as always, chatted about the weather, local news, anecdotes. But not a word of my daily activities from 1,700 miles away. For someone who is honest to a fault, it was a weird experience. I was sure at some point the fog would lift and I would be found out. After all, I’m over every day. Surely at some point I would be missed, right? Nope. The conversations were uneventful, my mom was as content as she would ever be, and we all experienced a measure of calm and reassurance that I had done the right thing.
Part of me felt like that little kid who successfully pulled the wool over mom or dad’s eyes when it came to homework or chores or curfews. But part of me felt bad, recognizing that my “success” was just one more indicator of my mom’s progression down Alzheimer’s Road.
So, to tell a lie or no? George Washington may have said, “I cannot tell a lie,” but, when carefully considered, a lie may be just the thing to keep everyone happy, especially your challenging elderly loved one. If it makes you feel better (or you suffer from Catholic guilt!), consider this post as your special dispensation to lie like a rug if necessary. Or just cross your fingers and toes as you tell the lie, still knowing you are doing the right thing.