Alzheimer’s Disease not only took over my mother and her memory, it tried to take me over too. At first, when my mom would ask silly questions like, at the age of 85, how her parents were doing, I would go with the truth. “Mom,” I would say, “think about it – if you are 85, they couldn’t still be with us, right? They died a long time ago.”
“Oh,” she would say in a momentary realization, “of course.” In another minute, the incident would be forgotten, no apparent harm done.
I soon became aware that I was out of step – the prevailing attitude among family members and caregivers was that one should play along with a question like that and reply in a reassuring way that would not cause distress. I get that, I get that it might be easier to support the dementia’s misinformation. But that seemed so patronizing. With all she had lost and would lose, didn’t I still owe her the truth?
If I was going to change that, I had a lifetime habit I had to break. I have always been a terrible liar, so it never seemed an option for me. As a child I would have been found out in a flash from my flushed cheeks, squirms, and panicky eyes. It’s not that I’m so principled, it’s more like I have an over-developed guilt gland that simply would torture me. Somebody else could say “I am a terrible liar” and mean that they lie all the time and are terrible for doing it. I’m just terrible at doing it.
For instance, I’m the one parent who couldn’t really sell the Santa Claus story to my kids, just kind of half-heartedly went along with it, but never put my credibility behind it. “If I lie to them now,” I thought, “why will they trust me about the more important stuff?” Ditto the Easter Bunny. Ditto the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Truth was the basis for trust, I figured.
So, when I was faced with my mother’s Alzheimer’s, I found myself constantly confronted with a truth challenge. Sometimes it was easy:
“Mom, you can’t go out and drive because the car was totaled in an accident.”
Sometimes it was hard:
“We can’t call your brother because he died last year.”
Eventually, I relented and allowed myself the casual lie, or at least an evasion, and then a diversion.
“Let’s not call him today. We’ll do it next time. Remember when we visited him at his house that summer? You two stayed up half the night talking.” She didn’t remember. But I didn’t like the lie.
I tried it for a while, but I just couldn’t make it work. I went back to answering honestly, honoring the way we had always done it. After a while, the disease removed the issue, no longer allowing us to talk back and forth. The truth ended up being that there were no more words. That disease took enough of a toll on her relationship with reality. In the end, I couldn’t make it worse.
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