Dear Family Advisor

My mom says my dad isn't my biological father -- and I can't tell if it's the truth or her dementia talking.

Last updated:

October 24, 2009

My mother, who has vascular dementia, confessed to me that she had an affair years ago -- with an old high school flame -- and that I'm their child. I'm devastated. I don't think Dad knows, and I'm sure my siblings don't know. I'm wondering if it's even true.

She wants to call a family meeting and "confess before I die." I don't think that's a good idea. My dad's my dad, and I love him and my siblings and don't want anything to come between us.

How do I get her to drop this? I'm hurt and angry, but I'd really just like to let it go -- except I'm having a hard time caring for my mother right now.

All of us have life lessons presented to us, and this one's a doozy. Yes, many people make deathbed confessions, about everything from hidden money to "other wives." Their intentions may be to set things right, but they may not realize how much they hurt their loved ones while trying to alleviate their own guilt.

But given her dementia, you're wise to question your mother's confession. She could be imagining the scenario. Unless you have a DNA test, I don't think you'll ever know who your biological father is. But you already know who your "dad" is, and no one can take that from you.

Sometimes a person with dementia fixates on an idea, so even if you'd rather ignore this one, you might not be able to. You're not going to be able to talk your mom into not telling people. In fact, the more you suggest she keep it private, the more she'll talk. One option is to call in a chaplain, therapist, or anyone she might view as a spiritual authority. Once she gets this off her chest with such a person, she might let it go.

If not, do talk to your dad. He may know more than you think, he may be surprised and incredibly hurt, or he may agree it's the dementia at work -- but it's best if the two of you can deal with this privately. Remember that she's been his wife for 40 years. The love and the life they've shared is the real choice she made, which helps offset any potential pain.

Emphasize to him that he's your dad, that you love him, and that you're loyal to him. Remind him that your mom loves him, too, and that dementia can keep the brain from telling truth from fiction.

Also be prepared to deal with this in a more public way. You and your dad may decide to announce it yourselves so you can control the damage, or in case it comes out another way, rehearse a "speech" you can give in response.

Meanwhile, look for ways to process your hurt and anger. Keep a journal, talk to a trusted friend, do some anger therapy. Cry, yell, place a chair across from you and have a mock fight with your mom in your head. Say all the ugly things you need to say. Unless you work through these emotions, they won't go away. They'll leak out in snide comments, mistrust of your spouse or others, and how you treat your mom. Realize that you may want to know if your mom's story is true in the future, even though you don't right now. It isn't a betrayal of your parents if you eventually decide to have testing and/or meet your supposed biological dad.

With my mom, who had Alzheimer's, I had to let my ethics guide me when my emotions couldn't. I had to stay true to my higher self and choose to love her no matter what she said or did, even when she deeply hurt me. It wasn't easy, and at times I could barely muster the heart to do it. I learned to emotionally detach and "do my job." I gave her meds, fed her, made sure she was safe, and spoke to her in a civil tone. At times, that was all I could do, but the pain passed. She needed me and I needed her.

Try to forget she's your mom for a minute and look at her life as a whole. She loves your dad, you, and your siblings. And all of us have done things we're not proud of. How would you want your loved ones to react if one of your mistakes came out later? Even if it's true she had an affair, it doesn't make her a "bad person." Marriage is really hard at times, and sometimes we reach out inappropriately for something we feel is missing. In truth, your mom has to forgive herself. She may not be able to come to that place of peace because of her dementia -- but if she has a lucid moment and you can get her to see that you love her and forgive her, she may be able to let this go.

Life is messy. How you handle this issue can make all the difference in the world. When we know who we are and how we're loved (imperfectly, because there's no other way), no one and no piece of information can take that from us. If you and your dad can say, "Yes, we know, and we've come to peace about it," then what anybody else says or does won't matter.

Ironically, if you can work through this, you'll emerge more grounded, more giving, and more at peace with yourself than most people get to be. You have the opportunity to truly examine your heart -- and that's a gift.