“Therapeutic lying” is a ridiculous phrase

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I work very, very hard to dispel myths about dementia. I work particularly hard to dispel myths regarding communication with individuals living with dementia. One of these myths is the idea of “therapeutic lying.”

Depending on who they learned from, care partners were taught to “never lie” to someone living with dementia, or they were taught to “therapeutically lie.” I’ll tell you right now: neither of these tactics are good options. And I’ll tell you why in a little bit.

“Therapeutic lying” is a phrase many care partners were taught at some point in their caregiving journey. Essentially, it means that you should go along with a person’s reality, but lie to them only if it’s therapeutic. What does that mean? (I certainly don’t know.)

The other option is even worse: you’re taught to “never lie,” which essentially means that you have to tell the individual the truth of our reality. For example, if your mother is asking where her parents are, then you’d tell her that they’ve passed away. DO NOT DO THIS. Ever. Under any circumstances. 

What I teach is something called Embracing Someone’s Reality. Embracing someone’s reality means that you take the word “lying” and throw it away. Instead, enter into their reality. If it’s true for them, it’s true for you. It’s not about “lying” or doing it “therapeutically” — it’s about living in the truth of someone else’s reality.

Dementia caregiving is not black-and-white. It’s such a gray area, and invoking the word “lie,” in either context, is really confusing. Make it a point to change your vocabulary when it comes to dementia care education! Words matter.

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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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