Is Honesty Really the Best Policy?

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Last week, I sat beside a client in the hospital and reminisced of days gone by. Though her short-term memory is shot, she’s able to recite stories from the past as though they took place yesterday. She shared one in particular that’s stuck with me for a few reasons: 1) it was hilarious and 2) it hit really close to home. This nonna (who I’ll call Lo) and daughter (D) recalled one summer at their country home, where they took in a baby raccoon that had been abandoned by its mommy. Four-year-old D affectionately named him Rakki and they bonded instantly; she dressed him in tiny outfits and turned a bottom drawer into a bedroom.

September approached and so did the inevitable: it was time to part with Rakki. Obviously D was heartbroken, but in true mom fashion Lo stepped in and made it better. Uncle Eddie lived on a farm full-time in Pennsylvania and was happy to adopt his furry nephew. Perfetto! The story doesn’t end there, though. Lo and D outlined the rest of Rakki’s thrilling life, including marriage, kids, and a subsequent (yet civil) divorce. Lo got a kick out of filling me in, especially when she revealed that they did not, in fact, ship Rakki to PA – he went right back where he came from (the back yard). We could not stop laughing.

The Rakki tale hit close to home because my parents told a similar lie to me: after finding that an egg had fallen from its nest and opened prematurely, I was panicked. We were on our way out, but my mom assured me that if I scooped the baby up and put him by the Virgin Mary, my dad would rush him to the vet when he got home from work. As far as I knew (until my mid-f’ing-twenties), he did just that: Dr. Wilson patched him up and sent my tiny bird to live on a farm in Pennsylvania. Was the PA farm anecdote a Jersey parent thing?! Was it so that we wouldn’t ask to visit? Regardless, the elaborate fibs our parents told were not simply for their own amusement, nor were they to hurt us. On the contrary, they were for our own best interests – to protect our little hearts.

D didn’t find out the truth about Rakki until adulthood, just as I was kept in the dark about the bird. It makes sense considering as kids we’re taught that lying is both awful and unfair. On top of that, we learn to never lie to our parents or to people that we love. Being dishonest with someone with dementia, then, logically sounds appalling. In reality, it can be essential:

“Those with dementia often struggle with logic, rational thought, sequencing, and emotional control. Therapeutic fibbing may be may be appropriate when telling the truth would cause pain, anxiety, or confusion, or when the person with dementia is experiencing life in a different “time zone”.”

Sometimes, a fib may be the kindest thing you can say to your loved one with dementia, though it’s easier said than done:

“To varying degrees, many of us as adults still feel that our parents are parents and that we, the children, are less assured, less capable, and less “grown up.” [We feel guilty for being untruthful.] The trouble with guilt is that it can keep you from making clear-headed decisions and doing what is right for [your parent] and the rest of the family.”

The 36-Hour Day

Remember that the fibs you tell are not intended to hurt your parents, just as theirs were not to you. Shake the guilt and be creative; adaptation is the key to success. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to this stuff. Accept the illogical and embrace absurdities. If your nonna insists her car’s outside and she’s got somewhere to be, remind her that “it’s in the shop.” Show her it’s not out front and offer her a ride. Validate her feelings. If nonno needs an aide post-fall but is too prideful (and too cheap), confirm that it’s just temporary and covered by insurance. Empathize with him: a guest at home is not ideal but the doctor wants him stronger (plus it doesn’t cost a thing!). Think outside the box and go with it. After all, they did the same for you.

4 thoughts on “Is Honesty Really the Best Policy?

  1. I love this story. How true it is. At the very end of my mother’s life she thought she was in the hospital to give birth. She knew who I was but yet she asked me to call my father (deceased many years prior). I told her my dad was at home taking care of the house and he would come later. It was one of my last conversations with her and I don’t regret 1 lie I told her.

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  2. I’ve learned that telling the truth is not always the right thing, it could do more harm than good. But, I shouldn’t lie either. I have developed an approach I think worth considering. If I felt being honest would hurt someone’s feeling, I would keep my opinion to myself, I would say nothing. I can change the subject, asking questions or simply saying I am not sure or I am not interested.

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