Caring Currents

Talking to Someone With Dementia: Is It Okay to Fib?

Last updated: Mar 09, 2010

The Odd Couple
Image by cursedthing used under the creative commons attribution no derivs license.

Is it okay to fib to someone with dementia? It certainly can grease a conversation and add quality to life.

Many people with mid-stage Alzheimer's (or another form of dementia) like to talk, and ask questions. These questions are partly a bid to latch onto bits of memories that have slipped just beyond their reach. They're also an instinctual way of continuing the normal back-and-forth of social discourse "“ even though what the person with dementia asks, at his or her turn, tends to be the same repetitive thing on a very short replay cycle.

Talking to someone with Alzheimer's who's still conversant can therefore be a little maddening -- IF you let it get to you.

A great lesson in relaxing and having more fun with such talks came one memorable day my family spent with my Dad.

"So are you in a band?" Dad asked my 17-year-old son, who'd brought a guitar to entertain his grandpa.

"No, not yet."

"Oh, you should be," Dad replied. Then he'd listen to Henry play a few minutes before interrupting him: "So are you in a band yet?"

For the first hour or so, Henry politely answered this way a dozen or more times. Then my sister-in-law interrupted to answer for him. "Yes he's the lead singer and he's so good!"

I was taken aback. This was a churchgoing, plain-speaking woman not prone to fibs. "That's great," Dad said approvingly. "What's the name of the band?"

Henry got what she was doing. He smiled and made up a name. Then we continued happily on a new loop for awhile: What kind of music the fictitious band played, what instrument Henry played, and did he sing? Over the course of the visit, this band went on tour and changed names. It variously played rock and roll, classical music, and jazz. Dad chatted away about his own youthful experiences with an alto sax "with leaky keys," and how he had "saved his talent" for his grandchildren to use (since neither he nor his five children--including me!-- had much).

That's when it dawned on me that the fib had "unstuck" the old conversational loop. We all had a great time. Were we lying to my dad? Yes. Was it okay? A better question: Was it effective? Answers to both: YES.

What helps:

  • Try to see the world as the person sees it. My dad was beyond caring whether my son was a Grammy winner who hangs with the Rolling Stones or a boy at a conservatory. There in his room at a rehab center, he just wanted to connect and enjoy companionable time with his beloved grandson. That was the point of his questions.

  • Fib within reason. A Alzheimer's Forum member told how her 82-year-old banker husband awakens to ask, "What time is it? Am I late?" She reports: "I usually say it is Saturday and he goes back to sleep." The truth might have agitated him (confusion or frustration over what he couldn't remember); the lie bought them both peaceful sleep.

  • Make sure any kids within earshot understand what's going on. My son was old enough to grasp Dad's dementia and to see that the importance of the bluff lay in the conversing, not the content. He was also mature enough to see that we weren't making fun of Grandpa or telling lies at his expense, or intentionally vexing him (which of course would be cruel).

  • Remember that you have to keep your sanity. My sister-in-law, with whom my Dad was living at the time, later explained why she'd stepped in to fib: Because sometimes fanciful left turns save her and my brother when their (endless!) patience runs thin. An untruth didn't really hurt Dad, and it really helped them.

So is it okay to lie to someone with Alzheimer's? Sometimes, if you're mindful of the big picture. Dad didn't remember Henry had played for him that day, much less the name of the band he hadn't really yet formed, much less that we'd visited! But the mood our loving, jovial visit inspired in him? That lingered.