Telling the Truth (or Not)

Telling the truth is among our most universal moral/ethical values. Parents teach their children to be truthful very early in life. In addition to the family, our social institutions (religion, education, economy, and politics) support the truth in one way or another although we usually think of the family and religion as having the greatest role to play.

Despite this kind of cultural and social support for the truth, we all know that lying is quite common. We also know that it may not always be best to tell the truth. In everyday life we are often untruthful because we want to protect someone. We see that most easily when a child scribbles a picture and gives it to her mother on her birthday. We expect the mother to say, “Thank you. It’s beautiful.” Even when it isn’t beautiful at all.

With this in mind, it would not be a surprise to learn that caregivers face many situations in which they make a decision not to be truthful with their loved ones. We do that in those moments when we “live in their world,” and it’s very similar to my example of the child’s gift to her mother. Several months ago, I had one of those with Kate when we arrived home, and she thought we were revisiting either a house that we had lived in years ago or the one in which she had grown up. It was such a surreal experience I was never clear. I do know that I made a conscious decision to go along with her and not destroy what was such a beautiful emotional experience for her.

Late yesterday after the sitter left, she had a similar, though less intense, experience. I didn’t immediately recognize it because it began with something that is now so normal. She got ready for us to leave for dinner. She was carrying her house slippers, a tube of toothpaste, and her toothbrush. As we walked through the family room, she said, “Don’t you like this room?” I told her I did, and we stopped to look around the room while she commented on things she liked. I still didn’t think much of what was happening. I am accustomed to this. Once we were in the car, she put her right hand in one of the slippers as though it were a glove. Then she started to put the other slipper on the other hand when she ran into a problem. That slipper held the toothpaste and toothbrush. She decided not to wear either of them and put them in a side pocket in the door.

As we drove out of the driveway, she talked about the neighborhood and how much she liked it. Then she surprised me by saying, “I’m glad we don’t live here anymore.” I could easily have said, “But we do still live here.” I didn’t. I said, “But it’s a nice area.” Then she said, “Yes, but it’s such a big city.” I didn’t say anything else, nor did she. As we had gone a little farther, she commented on all the lights. That is something she usually talks about in a positive way. It was beginning to get dark and rush hour. This time she was bothered by all the lights from the cars.

This is restaurant week, and the restaurant was quite busy. It was noisier than we would have liked, but we saw several people we know. There was a group of six or eight who are members of our church choir including the wife of our former choir director. She was the first to arrive and came to our table and chatted for a few minutes. In a little while, a couple we know from the opera nights at Casa Bella arrived and stopped by the table to say hello. Finally, we saw someone I used to see at the Y. I was a little surprised that Kate did not respond with more recognition of these people, but I think she may have been distracted by all the activity and the noise level.

It wasn’t until we had finished our dinner and were about to leave that she said, “Where are we going from here?” I answered automatically, and truthfully, “We’re going home.” She said, “Oh, we’re that close?” I told her we were just about ten minutes away. In a moment, she said, “I’m glad we don’t live here anymore. It’s too busy. I like living in a smaller place.” I didn’t say anything. I did begin to suspect that her bringing the slippers, toothpaste, and toothbrush was rooted in her belief that we were leaving our “old” house and woudn’t be back.

I wondered how she would respond when we got back to the house. She didn’t say anything about the house or the neighborhood or being glad we didn’t live here anymore. In fact, it almost appeared that she didn’t remember the house at all. When we walked out of the family room toward our bedroom, she pointed down the hallway to her right and said, “What’s there?” I told her that was a bathroom, and she decided to use it.

In a few minutes, I saw her start to close the two doors leading to the family room and told her it was all right to leave them open. Later, when I went to get her night gown, I noticed that she had closed the doors to the other bedrooms. I don’t know what prompts this, but it is not unusual.

Yesterday’s experience of playing along with Kate was an easy one. I never felt I should be truthful and point out that we were currently living in the house she thought was a former house. Neither did I feel any necessity to correct her when she thought we now live in another town. Some situations require more thought.

Several of those occurred a few months ago when she had several anxiety attacks and didn’t know where she was or who she is. Twice when she said, she didn’t know what was happening to her, I reminded her that she has Alzheimer’s. The first time she seemed to be a bit relieved. She said she had forgotten she has it. She accepted this very naturally. Of course, she forgot it. The second time it didn’t seem to mean anything to her, and I chose not go any further. I wouldn’t want her to think about the future and what she will experience. My only reason for telling her before was to relieve her anxiety about what was causing her memory loss. Although the truth didn’t cause a problem in those instances, I need to think of a less truthful but satisfying response.

There is one other situation that comes up much more frequently that I am beginning to wonder about. That involves the death of her parents. Up until now when we have talked about them, I have spoken about them in the past tense. Most of the time that is just fine. Sometimes, however, she is sad when she learns they are gone. That hasn’t been a problem so far, but I know that it could be sometime in the future. For that reason, I am becoming more sensitive when I talk about them. I can easily see my reaching a point when I always speak of them in the present tense.

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