Add To Favorites

When Is It OK to Lie?

Is Lying a Sin or a Survival Skill?
By: CaregiverZone

When George Washington cut down his father's cherry tree, he "could not tell a lie" and confessed to his father. The morale: A good person always tells the truth. The story did not discuss the circumstances surrounding the tree-cutting or subsequent confession. What if George's dad had heart trouble and learning about the demise of his cherry tree would have caused unneeded stress?

We have been instructed that telling the truth is an absolute - you either tell the truth or you lie, and lying is a sin. But life rarely allows for such clear distinctions. Which leads me to the following confession: I have lied to my clients and what's more have encouraged their families to do the same!

I don't propose we use lying as our primary strategy in caregiving. However, I do feel it is a legitimate tool in our coping kit for our own good as caregivers and the seniors we care for.

Each of us has an internal moral compass. It's important to step back and examine your own values about lying. My view is that it should never be automatic. It's a worst-case scenario. If you intend to lie, ask yourself:

  • What am I gaining by telling this lie?

  • What am I losing?

  • What impact will it have on the senior?

  • What impact will it have on me?

  • What impact will it have on our relationship?

Clearly, some lies are worth telling and some are not. I believe it is OK to lie when:

  • The truth does not matter. Often people with dementia talk about people and places that no longer exist except in their memories. It is extremely common for people with dementia to talk about visiting parents long deceased. "I need to bring my father some coffee," a client once insisted. There was no point in my bringing him back to reality by reminding him his father had been dead for 15 years. Instead I would say, "We will be going to see him soon. What does he take with his coffee?" Telling the truth in this circumstance simply did not matter - the lie hurt no one, and the truth would have caused pain.

  • The issue is minor but the truth would make it major. My ailing great-grandmother would have fought the idea that she needed to pay an aide to clean her house and be with her. She considered it a luxury and would have gone without the help she needed rather than pay for it. Therefore, her children paid the aide without telling her.

  • A person's safety is in jeopardy. The classic caregiving example is driving. If a senior refuses to stop driving and poses a risk to self or others, then do whatever you need to do, including lying, to stop it. I have suggested families disable the car and not tell the senior. I also have suggested stealing the keys.

  • The truth will destroy the relationship. As a social worker, I spoke extensively with a devoted daughter caring for her dying father. She was tormented by the prospect of telling her deeply religious father she was dating a man outside their faith. She was convinced this would cause him incredible pain and he would disown her - a potentially devastating blow to them both. She decided to withhold the truth about the man's religion because it might sever the relationship with her father; he might not have the time or emotional energy to change and accept this circumstance. In this case, keeping her relationship with her father was more important than telling the truth.

Lying is not OK when:

  • Its purpose is to assert your own agenda. If your parents get adequate medical care from their doctor but you feel they should go to another doctor, it would not be justifiable to lie to them to get them to go the doctor of your choice.

  • It takes away choices central to their personhood. I believe in always informing a person of a medical diagnosis even when it's Alzheimer's disease. If I don't share such important information, I deny their right to make choices and make sense of their lives.

Caregiving is a marathon, not a sprint. You almost always have a second, third or fourth chance; however, if the person feels betrayed to the core, you will have no relationship and no more chances. Caregiving stretches our minds, limits and ethics. It is important you approach it with flexibility - for yourself and others. Every situation is unique. Do what works for yours.

© CaregiverZone