19: How I Learned to Lie

19: How I Learned to Lie

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

How I Learned to Lie

A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.


And in the beginning, there I was… a fairly nice person with an excellent sense of ethics; kind to others, both human and four-legged; brought up properly; good manners; church-going; good values; helpful; polite; and always, always honest.

Then I learned to lie — and it felt good!

My mother’s journey through her dementia altered my preconceived, well-established viewpoints on many things. As her dementia progressed, she began to travel first class down the road marked “Delusions,” with dynamic side trips to the land of “Obstinate Refusal.”

How was I to know in advance what this was going to mean to my belief system? Flying by the seat of my pants was my new mode of travel; there were many stopovers and the tickets were nonrefundable.

Delusions are rigid false beliefs and Mom had them in glorious abundance — this was her reality. She was amazingly good at embroidering around the edges of the imaginary fabric she wove and I had to enter her world, as she certainly was not able to function in mine.

She became delusion driven, filled with turmoil in her false beliefs. I stole all of her money. I was hiding the mail. I hid or stole her stamps. All I bought was rotten food. I hid her favorite bedspread. I used her money to fly to Europe and buy jewels. I threw away her favorite clothes and purposely bought only the worst toilet paper. And, she did not wet the incontinence undergarments, somebody poured water on them. Yes, indeed.

I tried to explain, to accommodate, mollify, plead, and grovel. I was especially good at groveling.

One exhausting day, my wits had completely left me and Mom once again railed at me about my taking her good toilet paper and substituting “the cheap junk.” Instead of explaining, pointing out, trying to educate or argue, I wistfully said in a weak voice, “I’ll do better next time and buy the good stuff.”

Expecting a thermonuclear explosion, I girded myself for the blast and fallout. But something strange happened. She stopped ranting, became calm and moved on. Huh? What?

Okay — let’s try that again. A few days later, there was another delusional accusation fueled with agitation, “Gosh Mom, it must feel terrible when that happens, I will watch out for that.” And again, there it was, the same outcome with return to calmness. I was on to something!

This is when my lying began in earnest and it was awesome in its rewards. The fixation on rotten food was from time to time a hugely difficult problem because then Mom would not eat. But by now, I was such a good liar, there ought to have been a medal.

“Let me get rid of that and go to the grocery store and get some fresh food.” So, there I stood, putting various items from the refrigerator into plastic grocery bags and pretending I was taking them out to the garbage. I waited outside for ten minutes or so and re-entered the house with the same bags and same items, happily declaring, “Hi Mom, I got some really wonderful stuff at the market; so fresh and on sale, too!” I proceeded to put the same items back into the refrigerator and she was happy.

Initially, it was difficult for me to lie; I felt as though the earth might open up and swallow me for some of my whoppers. But as I developed insight, I came to understand that these fibs were a great kindness and not a moral lapse.

Later I learned this intervention is called “therapeutic fibbing.” It was one of the best tools in my caregiving toolbox. These fiblets kept Mom from becoming agitated or having unnecessary meltdowns, which made her life so much better.

When Mom demanded we go somewhere, but there was no time, or it was stormy, or the middle of the night, I would say the car battery was dead and I had to wait until tomorrow for the garage man to come.

She insisted on controlling the remote control for her heating system and would crank it up to stifling. There was a spare controller so I took that one for myself and took the batteries out of hers. I told her that she was “now in charge of the heating system.” She loved clicking that darned thing and it gave her great satisfaction. There was so much out of her control in her compromised life that this small bit of ersatz control was a delight for her.

If she refused a doctor’s appointment, I would pretend it was for me and she just came along, or that the doctor could not refill her treasured blood pressure pills until he saw her and, by the way, we would stop for ice cream on the way home.

Was this always perfect? No, not always, but it was for the vast majority of the time. It kept my mother from having to suffer the irritability, agitation, and upset from the false beliefs her compromised brain was inducing. It was so, so much better.

As I grew in knowledge, I learned that my lies were actually “validating her feelings,” and not her words. That made sense, as she was driven by her feelings. I also learned that when I validated what she was feeling it brought her comfort because she was being heard. And when I swiftly changed the subject after validating her feelings, that was called “re-focusing,” and permitted me to move her from the delusion onto something more pleasant and comforting.

Therapeutic fibbing worked so well through our journey that I now recommend it to friends who have a loved one with dementia. Who knew lying could be ethical? One more lesson in life that not all things are written in stone. It was worth all of the prevarication to see Mom calm and even smiling. It all goes into the basket called quality of life.

~Johanna Richardson

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