Truth, Lies, and Dementia (aka How Many Times Can You Tell a Guy His Dog Died?)

Our dog, Karl, died a few years ago. His mind was willing, but his back legs and hips had enough. He lived to the ripe old age of 14…which is a ridiculously long time for an English mastiff to live. We adopted him when he was 6. I don’t know what his life looked like before we met that day at the shelter, but I am affirm that he lived his best life once he ended up at our house.

We made the choice to euthanize him after he could no longer walk on his own. We stopped at Burger King on the way to the vet. He put down a whole serving of chicken fries in the backseat. At the vet, they gave him EZ cheese (you know, the kind in a squirty can) as they injected the medication.

As far as pet deaths go, it was among the best. He lived a long life. He died eating EZ cheese.

But it sucked.

Losing a pet sucks.

And that’s why I had a hard time with this story.

I was presenting for a class at a local nursing college when a student told me about her neighbor with dementia. His dog, Daisy, had passed away a few months back. Every morning he woke up and looked for Daisy. He’d ask his wife where Daisy was.

And everyday, he was told that Daisy had passed away.

Every. Single. Day.

He was told everyday that his dog died.

You know the day we lost Karl? He lived that everyday.

And he cried. Every. Single. Day.

This pain of losing his dog was inflicted upon him each day. However, he was unable to process that information. And he’d ask again the next day.

It’s like giving a shot. You feel the pain. Except with this shot…the medication wasn’t injected. So, really, it was just like stabbing him repeatedly with a needle.

His family thought that, in time, it’d stick. He’d remember that Daisy was gone. So they kept telling him, time and time again. And he cried, time and time again.

His family didn’t want to lie. I mean, honesty is the best policy, right? Isn’t that what our parents taught us?

Except…maybe there are exceptions. Maybe dementia changes the rules.

We don’t like to call it lying. In my field, we call it therapeutic fibbing. It makes us feel better.

So where is Daisy?

She’s on a walk with a friend.

She’s at the groomer.

She’s visiting another family member.

She’s at doggie daycare.

Sometimes we feel like we are breaking a rule of ethics when we fib to someone with dementia. If someone with dementia is unable to process our reality, let’s step into their reality. If their reality suggests that Daisy is still alive, let’s be a part of that reality.

I frequently am asked the question: “Is it okay to lie to my loved one with dementia?”

I used to dance around this a bit. I’d talk about stepping into their reality. I’d mention therapeutic fibbing. I once read this philosophical piece about when lying is okay, and I’d tried to awkwardly paraphrase it. It was like a sub-par mini Ted-talk on the ethics of lying.

After going through all this, family members would give me a confused look and say, “So you’re saying it’s okay to lie? Or not okay to lie?”

Now I just say yes.

When the truth causes pain and the information won’t stick anyway…it’s okay to lie.




4 thoughts on “Truth, Lies, and Dementia (aka How Many Times Can You Tell a Guy His Dog Died?)

  1. I do this with my Mom all the time. My brother, Sister and father have all passed away. My self and my two children are the only family left. She constantly asks why my brother hasn’t come to visit. and I tell her that he is so busy with his new job that he loves. She gets very happy and excited and it turns her entire mood around. It took me a year to figure this In the beginning I would explain he was in heaven whenever she would ask and she would begin grieving all over again. It momentarily devastated her and changed her mood for the remainder of our visit. It is bizarre that he is the only one she asks for. I guess favorites really do exist..


  2. I do this with my mom a lot. Unless she comes right out and asks me if so-and-so (usually her mother) is dead, I fib.


  3. What a pitiful, old man, and for him to experience the lose of his dog make his little life the worst tragedy. You described the worst or the worst. This reminded me of the movie, Ground Hog Day. Everyday was the same. Makes me want to die before I get old. Thank you for sharing truth.


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