I hate lying. In no small part due to how my parents raised me, it’s just not in my nature. But in interacting with and caring for my mom, who is living with Alzheimer’s, I have found that honesty isn’t always the best policy. Her Alzheimer’s has severely impacted her short-term memory. What I found is that when I correct her or try to change her perception of reality, I’m met with resistance in the best-case scenario and anxiety and tears in the worst-case scenario. It got me thinking…Is telling the truth or correcting her mistakes for my benefit or hers?
When caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, it’s important to be compassionate, empathic, and do what you can to promote their wellbeing, which includes seeking to reduce stress and anxiety. In addition to diminished short-term memory recollection, dementia can cause a person to live in or drift into and out of a different reality. When this happens, the conversation can shift to topics and questions that can challenge a caregiver to make a choice. Do I try to bring a loved one back to my reality? Or do I step into that alternate reality temporarily?
As an example, it’s not uncommon for traumatic events to be at the source of a continually revisited conversation topic. The person with Alzheimer’s may ask about a spouse or a sibling that passed years prior. Rather than remind your loved one of their family member’s passing, you could say, “Your brother is out with his friends at the movies. Why don’t we work on your drawings (or other favorite activity) until he returns home.” Another strategy you can try is to distract through storytelling. If a loved one asks about her brother, ask her to tell you about that time they both went to Game 7 of the World Series together. In both cases, you avoid the current reality by shifting the focus to something comforting – in this case, a favorite activity or favorite memory.
Similarly, for happy events and memories, I think it is ok to go with the flow when your loved one’s recollection of the facts is different or their perception of time is off. Sticking with baseball, if they want to talk about how incredible it was that their favorite team won the World Series back in the fall, go along with that – even if that World Series win happened twenty years prior. You’re not hurting them by participating in the mistruth; rather, you’re fulfilling your duties as an Alzheimer’s caregiver by making them feel comfortable and acknowledged, while avoiding causing distress and anxiety.
It’s a natural tendency to correct a mistake when you see one or a mistruth when you hear one. While I never recommend proactively introducing a lie, if it’s a lie to meet a loved one in their reality, I think that is ok to avoid unnecessary distress. Remember, these scenarios are often rooted in something that has real meaning to the person living with Alzheimer’s. Countering that with the truth can serve to dismiss that important memory, feeling, or belief your loved one holds dear. If you can become ok with that, you may also find doing so reduces your stress as well. If you would like help caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, our experts are here to help 24/7. Call us at (203) 542-2808 for a complimentary conversation about your loved one.