The Truth about Elderly and Lying

It hurts when your loved ones lie to you, and the more they mean to you, the more it will hurt, especially if they are usually a very honest and trustworthy person. It’s something that the caregivers of dementia patients deal with all of the time, as it’s one of the many troubling symptoms of this disease.

Lying in People with Dementia

As dementia sets in, the patient realizes they are losing their memory, and this creates a feeling of paranoia and loss. They look to replace their lost memories with new ones, even if those new memories are completed fabricated.

Often referred to as confabulation, it’s something that can occur naturally with age and something we have discussed in more detail below. However, it’s at its most common with dementia, and it’s one of the many common effects of this degenerative disease.

Lying in Elderly People Without Dementia

Zig Ziglar said that “Repetition is the mother of learning,” suggesting that the more you do something, the better you become. It’s a truth understood by every sports star, musician, and polyglot, but research suggests that it goes much further than this and that even a lie can change if it is repeated enough times.

For example, let’s say that you spent your early 20s in the US Air Force and had the following true story to tell:

One day, I flew over enemy territory. I was terrified, jumpy. I worried that I wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it and couldn’t really see where I was going. Thankfully, I made it out, but on my way back to base, the engines caught fire and I was forced to bring the plane down in some desolate farmland.

It’s a scary experience and one that will stay with you forever. But after a few years, you get tired of telling the same story, so you embellish it. The engines didn’t just catch fire, they were blown out by enemy guns. You didn’t just bring the plane down, you crash-landed in a ball of flames.

All of this happened in the middle of enemy territory.

After telling this story for many decades, it becomes real. You’ve now recited the fake story more than the real one, and because memory isn’t always as reliable as we like to think, the event is completely twisted and transformed in your mind.

This is not just a random story, it’s similar to the story told by a famous English author who actually was a pilot and really did crash-land, only to exaggerate his tale. 

It’s easy to dismiss such a story as an outright lie, and at one time, maybe that was true. Eventually, though, the person telling the story believes every word because that’s how they see it in their head.

You may have experienced something like this yourself. The problem is, you’re not aware of those changes in yourself so you don’t realize when they happen. Only when you encounter someone who experienced the same thing and you have completely different accounts do you realize that something is amiss.

If you have elderly parents, you may have seen some of these trends in their stories. Maybe they’re telling a story as if you weren’t there, even though you definitely were. Maybe they are exaggerating a story that you know didn’t happen as they claim.

Generally, this is nothing to worry about, as it’s just a sign that they got a little creative with the truth over the years and now can’t distinguish fact from fiction.

Sometimes, elderly parents will also repeat stories again and again, even though you suspect they know you’ve already heard it a million times. It’s frustrating for adult children and may even be concerning, but more often than not, they know what they’re doing and simply enjoy reminiscing.

Is it Okay to Lie to Someone with Dementia?

Honesty isn’t always the best policy. In fact, as far as dementia patients are concerned, it rarely is. 

The term therapeutic fibbing has been used to refer to the process of making small and calculated lies to a patient with dementia. These lies are designed to soften the blow of reality.

For instance, if they are seeing or hearing something that isn’t there, it’s often better to reassure them and acknowledge what they are experiencing, rather than telling them it isn’t real. If they are refusing to take medications, eat certain foods, or get dressed, a few little white lies can convince them.

On the one hand, you’re lying to someone you love and care for. On the other hand, those lies won’t cause any harm and will only make their life easier.