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Dementia and the art of little fibs

Columnist Bill Herr taught high school mathematics and science for 32 years before serving as a volunteer and then as a staff chaplain at two nursing homes.  

By Bill Herr

My aunt lived in a nursing home in a nearby city.  I have great memories of my aunt and uncle.  At family gatherings in their home, the younger ones played games and the older ones played cards.  My aunt had been active in social organizations. My uncle had a good job and always had a cigar in his mouth when they played cards. He had passed years before when I went to visit my aunt a nursing home.  

When I visit someone I always bring up past events in that person’s life in the conversation.  When I mentioned my uncle’s name, my aunt, who now had dementia, asked me where he was. I said, “He is in heaven, you remember he died a few years back.”  That was the wrong thing for me to say. My aunt cried and said, “Why didn’t someone tell me?”  She was angry. 


That is when I learned that although our entire life we are told to tell the truth, it can sometimes bring sadness and repeated grief to the one we tell it to. 

At the nursing home where I was chaplain, this same situation would come up at times. One lady kept asking me where her husband was. He had been a former tax accountant. They lived in the same room at the nursing home, and then he died. 

With her dementia, she couldn’t absorb the reality that he was gone. Reminding her of his death would only bring grief again, and then she would forget. Staff members learned to tell her little fibs. They would say, “He’s probably doing someone’s taxes right now.” 

It is important for staff members to have continuity in conversations with residents. Communicating the same response will reassure the resident.  

Those that visit residents in a nursing home should be aware of how the truth can hurt. The notion of gentle fibbing can be a way to put the resident at ease and reduce anxiety. It is an act of grace.