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Should you lie to someone with dementia?

The grinding of teeth had ceased for a month. Mom’s disposition was cheerful and she seemed joyfully alert. Then my sister mentioned she was going on vacation for a week. Suddenly everything changed.


Between the Pond and the Woods

Between the Pond and the Woods

Our mom has always been a very sensitive person. Long before she was diagnosed with dementia, she was deeply influenced by the emotional states of people around her. That trait became more pronounced as her disease progressed. The idea of being left behind by someone she loves now prompts great distress. Her speech is very limited, so she can’t quite express this. But the grinding, the lethargy, the disorientation all increased at exactly the same time that one caregiving daughter left for a well-deserved break.

This scenario might have been easier for my mom if she hadn’t brainwashed us to always tell the truth.  Medical professionals do not disapprove of engaging in “therapeutic lying”. Dr. Charles Atkins, describes this practice as the equivalent of telling a white lie “in the interest of helping or soothing” a person with dementia. Since my mom’s understanding of time and circumstance is already very distorted, a “white lie” about my sister’s absence might have reduced the anxiety she seems to be feeling.

Of course, this is just my interpretation of things. Who really knows what she’s going through? Trying to understand the way my mother sees the world is a bit like imagining how a Martian feels on a visit to Earth. I have no accurate barometer for interpreting Mom’s experience because dementia has made her perceptions so different from my own.

My response to this and all crises is to employ the usual tools for calming her. Hugs, quiet soothing statements, stroking her back. These things settle her down. I’m hoping that soon she’ll forget the whole vacation business. Yet often it seems that the ideas I want her to forget are the only ones she retains. Can’t win. Must try anyway.

Ideas to Float On: The Miracle Angle for Caregivers

During my first months as as a full-time caregiver I was incredibly sad. Instead of seeing my mom enjoy her well-deserved retirement, I watched her struggle to do simple things like write her own name. My endless tears could have cleaned the slopes of the Rockies. I longed for some sort of flotation device to keep me from drowning in  despair. That’s when I started searching for “Ideas to Float On” — creative actions I could take to help Mom and I survive our sad times.

Keep a Flotation Device Handy

One idea that caregivers can float on is called the “Miracle Angle”, a concept I learned while studying the yoga philosophies of Rod Stryker. The Miracle Angle, as described in Stryker’s book The Four Desires, is a way of identifying the helpful elements built into bad situations. If you can identify the Miracle Angle of a problem, it will help you shift your focus to the positive consequences of a situation instead of dwelling in the land of sadness.

On many occasions, adopting the Miracle Angle has kept me from sliding into depression. For example, instead of crying when Mom couldn’t recall loved ones by name, I took smiling photos of her with friends and family then stuck them on the refrigerator. If their names came up in conversation, I pointed to the pictures to remind her who they were. Later, when Mom began losing her sight, I invented activities that engaged her other senses. To buoy our spirits, I made up silly songs to sing to her while I cooked. Each tune had a simple refrain she could sing along with me. It made us both feel better.

Doing these things, helped me treasure the happy elements at the core of our relationship. The pictures gave us opportunities to remember friends in joyful situations and helped me reflect on the many ways they enriched our lives. Though I can’t remember my improvised songs, I can never forget the sound of her laughing at them.

Over time, the Miracle Angle has become a flotation device for me. Rod Stryker says, “Don’t sleep on your resentments, pain and suffering. Before going to bed each night, clear your mind and find the Miracle Angle from which to look at any circumstance that is troubling you. You may not instantly be uplifted by the change in perspective, but it will provide you with the understanding and acceptance from which you can move forward with a clearer sense of purpose.” As caregivers, taking the optimistic perspective can help us float above the waves of sadness and appreciate the fleeting, happy moments we encounter during the dementia marathon.