How can I tell if he's lying or if it's the dementia?

8 answers | Last updated: Jan 10, 2017
Sled483 asked...

My father has dementia. He is very sneaky and lies all the time. How do I know the difference between the disease and his conscience decisions? For example he couldn't find our local variety store which has been in existence for 20+ years to buy a soda for his grandson. However, he was able to to walk to the new Walgreens which just opened two weeks ago and buy himself a flashlight. Is this normal? I sometimes think he is exaggerating his symptoms. Am I wrong?

Expert Answers

Jytte Lokvig, PhD, coaches families and professional caregivers and designs life-enrichment programs and activities for patients with Alzheimer's disease and related dementia. Her workshops and seminars help caregivers and families create a healthy environment based on dignity and humor. She is the author of Alzheimer's A to Z: A Quick-Reference Guide.

I suspect that when you think your father is being sneaky or lying to you, he is actually attempting to cope with his confusion. The early stages of Alzheimer's and other dementias often keep a person in turmoil. He's aware of his slipping memory and tries desperately to hold on. Sometimes he may seek an explanation for his own peace of mind, but to you this may sound like a lie.

Every case of dementia is unique. For some people, the decline is pretty steady, while others experience a great deal of fluctuation. One day they will appear "normal," the next they may not recognize even the most familiar. This can be most disconcerting to family members. An otherwise loving wife may suddenly think her husband of forty years is a dangerous intruder and try to chase him out of the house with a frying pan. There's also no predicting which "memory" will surface at any particular moment. Your father remembered a brand new store, while completely forgetting something that you reasonably considered totally familiar, so when he gave you some crazy explanation, it's understandable that you would think that he was trying to fool you.

One of my acquaintances told me how she came to terms with her Alzheimer's. She had long been aware of her slipping memory and increased confusion, but she could not face the thought of this being Alzheimer's, so she had done her best to cover up and find excuses for herself, which had led to much friction within the family and alienation from her daughter.

When I met her two years after she'd moved to an assisted living, she related what had been her "wake-up call." She was driving her regular route back to her home of eight years, when suddenly nothing on her street looked familiar. Feeling that her brain had frozen, she had stopped the car cold in the middle of the street to try to get her bearings. She was absolutely terrified. Fortunately a neighbor saw her and managed to get her back home. She gave up driving that day, called her daughter and admitted that she did indeed need help.

Your father needs your strength and support. I suggest that you assume that he's not trying to deceive you, but rather that it's the disease surfacing. If you start with this assumption, you'll likely find that he'll start to trust you enough to share his fears and feelings with you. It will make life easier for both of you.

Community Answers

Ca-claire answered...

When I run into the 'lies' that my Mother tells, which can all be explained by her dementia or AD, I try to calm myself. The Mother that was self-sufficient, honest, and loving has been taken over by an alter-ego (the dementia). While at times, my Mother is 'the old Mom', most of the time, the alter ego has taken over. The 'old Mom' has no idea what the alter ego has done, and vice versa. I hope you are able to understand that your Father is not intentionally lying to you - he is just unaware of what's happening.

Pjrod answered...

I have found that when I catch my husband in a "lie", it is not intentional. He either didn't understand the question or found himself in an unfamiliar situation. He gave an answer simply to end the conversation or leave an uncomfortable encounter. We talk openly and honestly about Alzheimer's. He has accepted the disease for the most part but more often, he simply accepts my explanation for the "lie". I try to reassure him that it's ok to forget or not understand. The "lies" are less frequent only because I am more aware of his limitations. It helps to observe him in situations and avoid those that are now harder for him. For example, my husband can go to the store which is two blocks away, if I draw him a map. He knows to ask someone which way to walk back home. I give him a note and the exact monies for his purchases. Soon he won't be able to do even this,,,but we are aware of his inablility to recognize where he lives, handle a grocery list or how to count money. This is the same man who ran a very successful business for many years. It's hard to see him grow more dependant and defiant every day. Try to remember your Dad's behaviour is part of the disease and not personal. Hugs to you.

Kittylady answered...

My Mother, who is 88, has not been diagnosed with dementia or AD, but clearly she is slipping. I find that when I talk to her and the alter ego is there, it's better to call back in a few hours, when my Mother may be back. She has a vague recollection about the earlier conversation-in this case finding an audiologist to see if she is going deaf by contacting her PCP-and was aking me whether she had an appointment that day. I explained that she had asked me to call the PCP and she said that she would make an appointment tomorrow to see him in person. I'll call her tomorrow morning to remind her and if its the alter ego, I wil call the PCP myself. Managing this relationship from 2,000 miles away is tricky, but you need to be resourceful and always try new methods.

Givealoha answered...

I'm responding to this question in gratitude because I'm just as confused as you Sled483 about determining if parents with dementia are twisting the truth or is it the illness. I had a real hard time this evening with my mom telling me one disturbing lie after another. I hate not to believe her but it happens so often I don't know what's true or not. Thank you for your answers everyone & best wishes to you and yours.

A fellow caregiver answered...

I learnt too late about how Alzheimer's affects people, so I did not handle my mother's 'lies' very well. I corrected her and pointed out the evidence which proved her wrong. That only made her more upset. In hindsight, I would ask myself now : Does it really matter? Almost always it doesn't. Then it is best, I think, to go along with it. Acknowledge how she/he feels, allow her/him to be 'right' - if possible even compliment her/him on their good sense or abilities - reassure them of your love..

I don't like the 'alter ego' and 'blame it on the disease' ideas because I think that attitude is patronising, and does not acknowledge the huge struggle which the person with dementia is having to cope with their confusion. He/she is still the same person, but trying desperately to make sense of a topsy-turvy world.

Katherinebuck answered...

I too struggle with this from my husband - until I realised that he was exhibiting many signs and symptoms of a younger onset dementia in some form I believed that he was deliberately lying and being argumentative (and so many other things!)

However, now I believe that many times he believes certain things to be true when they are not, or that his mind fills in gaps with truths from other times when he can't find an appropriate truth for the current situation (if that makes sense). In many ways my new perspective makes it easier for me to deal with our new reality. Although it is still difficult not to correct untruths - I try to save those arguments for when it really matters.

I was very proud of myself for staying cool, calm and collected (on the outside) when hubby 'accidentally' bid on an online auction for a AUD$15K car!!!! I managed to cancel the bid, and he said he felt sick when I asked why he was bidding - he said he hadn't.....

K&h answered...

I am 53 and my darling wife too is 53. We are happily married for 26 years now, with a daughter and son pursuing ambitious carer. My elderly mother and mother in law both lives with us. My mother in law is a dementia person at 89 years. I read dementia could be hereditary.

We are a very successful couple. We have worked very hard and enjoying the success of our life and children.

For past several years, I have accused my wife of not telling the truth to me. When I confront her with evidence, she would look at me very sad and confused. In my anger, I used to be very harsh. She would only cry and all the time promise me not to lies never again. She would explain me that she does not know why she lied to me. I did not again believe her in my anger.

Given the experience with my mother in law living in the same house, I began to think something not right with my dear wife. Recently - a year ago, I observed when she is under pressure shaking her head without her knowledge. If I tell her about it, she is not aware of it.

I thought of it a lot and confided in a friend who is a medical practitioner. Having discussed, I decided to talk to my wife when she was happy while on a holiday. She agreed to cooperate with me to consult a Doctor. Now, we have gone through brain scanning etc and initial indications are MCI, anxiety and being unable to handle complex tasks.

The best is I am bit more matured and knowledgeable. I love her more than ever. I understand her now better than ever. But,....

I do not know how to disclose this to our daughter and son. I do not know when to tell them. I think I should tell them early so that they will be more considerate to their mother and supportive. I am not sure how they will take it.

My world is turning dark.