My son Max gave me a seedling for Mother’s Day. I was supposed to plant it in the garden once it grew big enough, but instead it’s been sitting on a plate on our porch for months, looking more and more scraggly. I feel guilty every time I look at it.
So, a few days ago, in a fit of cleaning spontaneity, I tossed the plant in the trash. Of course that’s the day Max went looking for it—the flower he hasn’t glanced at in two months. “Where’s my flower, Momma?” he asked. Cornered, I came up with a lie. “It’s planted in the garden somewhere, growing into a bigger flower.” The guilt I now feel over the lie is worse than the guilt I felt about the scraggly flower.
It’s a debate my husband and I have constantly related to our kids. When is it okay to lie? Is it okay to lie about fun stuff and upcoming surprises? Is it okay to lie to protect their feelings? Is it okay to lie to keep them safe?
Many of us face the same debate when caring for aging loved ones. Is it okay to lie if it calms them down? Is it okay to lie if it encourages them to take better care of themselves? Is it okay to lie if it keeps them safe?
We work with families who do both. Some are upfront and honest about everything—the cost of care, the realities of selling a home, the reasons for tough decisions. Others avoid conflict with extensions of the truth—“Don’t worry about the cost—it’s covered by your insurance.” I see benefits to both. I’m impressed by the creativity of families who solve the biggest arguments of aging with a lie (“The RMV sent you a letter saying your license has expired, and you’ll need to take a driving test to renew it”), and I admire the family caregivers who go with honesty above all else, even when it makes their lives more difficult.
One of the more popular techniques for caring for someone with advanced dementia encourages the use of “geriatric fiblets” to soothe or redirect—for example, saying, “She’ll be here soon” to someone who is asking for their long-deceased mother, or saying, “We’ll go in a little while” to someone who keeps wanting to go home even though she’s already there.
Of course, there’s an opposing approach called “validation,” which encourages caregivers to pursue a feeling or a memory with a loved one rather than try to distract from it: “Why do you want to go home—are you unhappy here?” “What happened to your mother? Do you miss her?”
While I’d like to say one approach is clearly better than the other, caregivers have had success with both. Users of fiblets are passionate about their place in caregiving, while supporters of validation say honesty helps get to the unresolved grief they believe is behind many of the behaviors seen in late-stage dementia (e.g., carrying a baby doll, asking about home, calling out for a parent).
Much like parenting, caring for aging loved ones is an unchartered sea, and we don’t always know how to navigate it. Sometimes, we regret blurting out a lie to avoid a bigger situation, and sometimes, we explain things truthfully and in detail and end up wishing we hadn’t. That’s why I think the answer to “When is it okay to lie?” lies somewhere in the middle: Usually, honesty is best, but, sometimes, it isn’t.
Molly Rowe owns FirstLight Home Care with her husband, Steve Rowe, and lives in Swampscott with their two sons. FirstLight provides non-medical in-home care to adults in Swampscott, Marblehead, Nahant, Lynn, Salem, Peabody, Danvers, Beverly, and Lynnfield. For more information and help caring for your loved ones in the comfort of their own homes, please visit FirstLight’s website at www.northshore.firstlighthomecare.com or contact Molly at firstname.lastname@example.org