Published On March 28, 2022
“Did you speak to Alan?”
my mother asks.
“You mean Dr. Alan, your dentist?”
“No. No. Alan! The man I’m dating,” she says, a smile forming on her 92-year-old face. My mother is lying in bed, layers of blankets covering her 80-pound frame. I cover her toes with one of the blankets as she continues to tell me about her new romance. Today, her voice sounds firmer, more lucid, like the woman I used to know, the fierce woman with the smarts and charm of a young Suzanne Pleshette.
I miss this mother, the woman who seemed to fear nothing. In her day, she’d studied Shakespeare, climbed the corporate ladder and taught me how to be an ardent feminist, speaking my truth. But now, as she talks about this man, truth is a trickier topic. Alan can’t possibly be real.
“And where did you meet Alan?” I ask.
“I met him at the club I joined,” she says. “It was so odd, I met him that first night, and Aunt Marion was there, too.” My mother’s brow furrows. “It is strange, though, because I know my sister died 10 years ago.”
It has taken me some time to get used to the mental turns that her dementia takes. One of the biggest battles had been the dog. “She thinks she has a dog,” I told the geriatrician. “Only no one else can see him.” My mother had instructed the aides to put down a water dish, and soon after, dog food. It was innocent enough until one day she grew livid, hitting herself, when the aides refused to make a vet appointment.
We saw a neurologist who diagnosed Lewy body disease, a progressive form of dementia that often comes with hallucinations and mood changes. When she heard the diagnosis, my mother confessed that she’d been living with demons, horrible, scary, disfigured people who told her what to do. Those visions left her confused and anxious. Medications were prescribed, but a few weeks in, it was clear they weren’t helping.
When the hallucinations first became part of her daily reality, I tried to reason them out of her during my visits. I tried changing the topic. I always left defeated, a flattened bulwark against the tide of her demons.
The neurologist had a suggestion: relax my need for her to face facts. Learn how to lie.
“My mother is the woman who taught me not to lie,” I said. “I don’t feel comfortable with that.”
The more I struggled, though, the more I considered it. I read the literature he suggested. The Alzheimer’s Association laid out a few medical theories, including “therapeutic fibbing” and “loving deception,” both ways to approach patients who can’t make sense of the truth. Other experts championed an approach called the “validation method,” which focuses not on getting caught up in the facts as I had been doing, but instead trying to connect and understand the world in which the dementia patient lives.
They all agree on one thing: There is a moral difference between lying for your own gain and lying to protect and care for someone else. And it seemed to me that joining in my mother’s lie—some of them at least—might be the way to keep her calm and maybe even sometimes make her happy.
Over the next months I learned to combine these three methods. I trained my mother’s aides to use them, too. We learned when to let her lead the way, and slowly things got more peaceful.
Today, I tell her that Alan sounds charming. She asks me about the phone call I had with him. I’m taken aback only for a moment, then I take a breath and tell her that he really likes her, he told me so himself.
She smiles. I realize this conversation that would have made my heart sink a month ago is doing something different—making us both feel calm and loved. And for now, that’s all I need.
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