What is therapeutic lying?

Is it ever acceptable to tell ‘white lies’ to a loved one with dementia? Find out the arguments for and against the use of therapeutic lying

Could this be you?

You want the person you’re caring for to be as happy and content as possible and you hate the idea of lying to them, but,

• It might be less upsetting for them than telling the truth.
• How else can you get them to go to the doctor/take a bath/have a shave?

Many carers regularly find themselves faced with this sort of moral or ethical dilemma and deciding what to do is a personal decision. Here are the pros and cons so you can make up your own mind.

Two reasons to tell a therapeutic lie

It’s kinder
This is particularly true when you’re faced with awkward questions especially ones about people who’ve passed away. Being brought back to reality and told the truth, ie ‘your husband/wife/sister/died ten years ago’ could cause unnecessary anguish and pain. And if you need to do this a lot (because they often forget the same person is dead) imagine how distressing it could become.

It’s easier
A white lie which encourages the person you’re caring for to take their medication, or eat their breakfast could make a tough day just a little more manageable for you.

Did you know? Almost 98 per cent of nurses and care staff admit they have told a white lie to a patient if they believed it to be in their best interests.

Two reasons NOT to lie

It’s demeaning
People with dementia deserve to be treated with respect and some people still believe that lying to them – even if you do think it’s ‘for their own good’ – can’t be justified.

You might get found out
Dementia is a complex illness so there’s no guarantees that the person you ‘lied to’ won’t remember the fact you told them their mum/sister/husband would be coming to see them ‘at tea time’ but didn’t turn up. This, in turn, could cause them to lose trust in you.

Good to know

You don’t always have to tell an outright lie. Instead you could simply try:

Saying nothing
If your mum thinks she works in the day centre you visit every week, do you really need to tell her the truth and correct her mistake? Is there any harm in saying nothing and playing along, especially if it brings her some sense of purpose and satisfaction.

Bending the truth
If your husband keeps asking ‘where’s my dad? Some carers side step the question by saying something like ‘don’t worry, he’s safe’ instead of reminding him he died 30 years ago. Or you could try changing the subject slightly by asking ‘where would he normally be at this time?’

Tip: Is it in their best interests?
If you’re unsure what to do, remember that Person Centred Care focuses on the uniqueness of each person and each dementia journey. So if you feel a therapeutic lie is in the best interests of the person you love, perhaps you need to trust your instinct.

Feel guilty?

If you do find it necessary to lie to a loved one, try not to feel bad about it. Instead, see the bigger truth; the person you’re caring for deserves to feel calm, safe and respected. Constantly correcting them, by bringing them back to reality, may not only cause sadness and pain, it could also destroy their dignity and peace.