Therapeutic Lying and Why Caregivers Do It

Most of us learn from a young age that lying has consequences. As children, we are told all kinds of stories—from “Pinocchio” to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”—making it clear why we should tell the truth. What these stories leave out is that there are some instances when fibbing is acceptable, or potentially even beneficial, like when it comes to caring for a loved one with memory loss.

Caregivers to seniors with dementia, Alzheimer’s and other memory loss conditions often use a practice called therapeutic lying. Despite what the name implies, this technique focuses more on cueing positive actions and redirecting outbursts than outright “lying” to a loved one. Rather than correcting a senior with memory loss who misremembers something, caregivers and memory loss specialists use compassionate reactions and suggestions that change the conversation to focus on something positive. It might feel counterintuitive to be anything less than honest with a loved one, but this technique can make a big difference in quality of life for someone living with dementia.

Let’s take a look at why and how caregivers implement this strategy.

Why Do Caregivers Use Therapeutic Lying?

The word “lie” typically has a negative connotation, but in the case of therapeutic lying, it can actually have positive effects on seniors living with memory loss. As dementia progresses, short-term memory loss causes patients to disconnect from the present day. This can manifest in many ways, like forgetting their age or feeling confused about where they are.

To put yourself in the perspective of a senior with dementia, imagine what it might feel like to fully believe you are still in high school. It would be a jarring and disorienting experience to have another person tell you that you’re not actually 17 years old and your life has in fact changed dramatically since that time. Being told everything you feel and believe is untrue can, unsurprisingly, cause severe feelings of confusion, fear, anxiety and agitation. It’s in situations like these that telling your loved one the truth may not have many benefits—uprooting their sense of reality doesn’t guarantee they’ll suddenly remember or even believe what you’re saying, and making these corrections over and over can cause unnecessary emotional distress.

Instead of making someone with memory loss live in a cycle of constant trauma, caregivers use therapeutic lying to absolve them of unnecessary stress-inducing experiences, which can result in a more peaceful and stable life.

Types of Therapeutic Lying

There are several strategies caregivers use in therapeutic lying, each being used for different reasons depending on what the situation calls for.

  • Fibbing: This tactic relies on caregivers to temporarily step into their loved one’s reality and react accordingly. When a senior recounts or relays incorrect information to a caregiver, the caregiver agrees with what they’re saying and even incorporates it as truth as they respond. This is often used in the case of memories that might cause agitation, like when a loved one is talking about a family member without realizing they are deceased.
  • No response: A response might not be necessary at all if your loved one mentions something that is untrue but also insignificant. Maybe they think today is Monday when it’s actually Wednesday. The exact day of the week is not usually an important detail, so there is no need to either correct or confirm this.
  • Distraction: It can be helpful to distract a loved one with an activity they enjoy if they seem particularly distressed or fixated on specific details. For example, if they are waiting to see their brother who isn’t actually visiting, one way to change their focus could be going on a walk with them and talking about other topics until they are no longer concerned about their brother’s visit.

When It Makes More Sense to Tell the Truth

Therapeutic lying is not the best solution for every situation, and it can take time to learn when and how to use it. You should always prioritize your loved one’s safety and comfort, and sometimes giving them accurate information in certain scenarios is the best way to do that. If a senior is unsure of where they are or who you are, for instance, you can gently remind them.

In general, it’s a good practice to maintain a positive expression, relaxed posture and gentle tone. When reintroducing yourself, it can be helpful for your loved one if you provide as much context as possible. If you’re trying to comfort someone about where they are, try to incorporate positive descriptions and reminders about reasons they like being in that place.

Need Help? Get Help

If your loved one is regularly experiencing frustration and confusion related to memory loss, there are many support systems available to gain more peace of mind about their well-being. Options for residential memory care and short-term respite care may provide needed relief. At Wingate Residences at Haverhill, our staff members are skilled in caring for seniors with memory loss and other cognitive disorders. Our unique memory care program, The Neighborhood, is designed to help people with dementia live their best lives. Give us a call or schedule a tour today to learn more about our memory care program.

For more tips on caring for a loved one with memory loss, check out our recent blog on reducing stress during a move to memory care.

Wingate Residences at Haverhill