By Teresa Swartz Roberts
Blog post 21. Copyright 2017
I lied to my mother.
I lied about who ate the chocolate ice cream, hiding my plastic bowl in the floor of the TV room closet so that I could wash it later or forget about it altogether until it drew ants. I lied about where I was when she called from work to say that I could not see my boyfriend that night. I lied about Grandma and Grandpa. I feel guilty about most of my lies–but not the last.
Mother was living in a memory unit in a nursing home. She had been terribly confused and unable to care for herself and had eventually become too unsafe in the assisted living facility she had chosen back when she could articulate what she wanted. Mother wanted to remain in West Virginia, in the Kanawha Valley, the place she had called home as a child and the place she had put down roots as an adult.
After her divorce from my father, Mother moved me and my three older brothers to Dunbar. We lived two blocks from Grandma and Grandpa, who still lived in the house they had built and in which they had raised my mother and her siblings.
Grandma and Grandpa were vital to our family life. Grandma walked me to the first day of first grade and walked me home again after a car purposely swerved to splash me and my new dress with muddy water. She helped me feel less embarrassed about being late. I remember waking up on my grandparents’ couch, which Grandma called a davenport, after developing a fever overnight. Mother had dropped me off on her way to work, knowing that I would be taken care of. Christmas Eve belonged to Grandma and Grandpa, and all of the grandchildren wanted to play Santa.
It’s no wonder that Grandma and Grandpa were on Mother’s mind. When she asked me how her parents were, I told her they were fine. It was only partially a lie. I believed they were fine in the afterlife. They had been gone for more than 20 years.
My lie was meant to be kind, an example of a dementia care philosophy: therapeutic lying. The basic idea is that a lie sometimes offers more comfort to someone who cannot remember or understand an unpleasant fact, such as the death of her parents. It can also involve entering the reality being experienced by the person with dementia instead of pointing out her mistakes or, worse yet, calling her fantasies lies. There is a temptation to set a loved one straight, to tell her the truth at all costs. Frankly, the cost is too high for a piece of information that is not likely to remain in memory.
How does it work? I would figure out a statement I could live with: The house in Nitro is safe. The house was not hers anymore, which I did not say, but the house was safe. I had driven by it the night before. I didn’t like the new plants in the front yard, but the house had not burned down or been damaged. I provided a lie that I could live with that would put my mother at ease.
I once heard a woman on her first night in the memory unit ask when her daughter was coming to pick her up. The nurse on duty told her that the roads were bad and that everyone would be spending the night there, that there were enough beds for everybody. All of those pieces of information were true, although they were not the reason the woman’s daughter would not be coming.
A man called out for his wife as he sat in front of the giant TV. One of the nursing assistants said, “She’s not here right now. What do you need?” He asked for a snack, and he got one, and his wife lived on in his memory. There was no reason to say she had died. He would have to relive that grief each time he was told.
A family member carefully used the term hospital to describe her mother’s nursing home. Her mother could accept a hospital stay but became upset when she thought about living in a nursing home. Why not ease her mother’s mind?
I was taught not to lie. But I did. I’m not sorry. If I am one of the 20 to 40 percent of Parkinson’s patients who develop dementia, I give permission to my family and friends to lie to me. I hope they will.