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Lying helped my family live with Alzheimer's

Ron Bel Bruno with his father, Jim Bel

Ron Bel Bruno with his father, Jim Bel Bruno, in Miami Beach in 1969. Credit: Ron Bel Bruno

“We got $5 million for the house, Dad,” I said to my father.

I was lying. 

However, as the angst washed from his face, I knew that this untruth — what Alzheimer’s experts call a compassionate lie — was nothing to be ashamed about.

To caregivers of the 5.8 million Americans with the disease during this month of Alzheimer's awareness, I offer this: Learning to lie, and being OK with it, can make a loved one’s slow journey into oblivion a kinder, gentler experience. Well-intended deceptions can lessen the caregiver’s own emotional burden, too — though it may be challenging at first to weave entire conversations from thin threads of synthetic fact. Particularly as the holiday season begins, it’s important to remember the value of a well-timed falsehood.

Jim Bel Bruno Sr., my 80-year-old dad, was still an obsessive money manager, even though we’d already taken the reins on his finances. He was convinced that the four-bedroom Colonial he’d purchased 47 years ago in Clifton, New Jersey, was worth 10 times its eventual sale price. I lied to keep him feeling calm and secure on an otherwise chaotic day. He'd already had an accident before being able to get to the restroom while shopping with his caregiver and had just pushed his lunch plate across the dining-room table.

Dad worked hard to provide for his family and leave a legacy. He wanted assurances that he’d succeeded — and he had, if not to the extent he imagined. So whatever conversational shortcuts we had to take to reach a quieter, calmer place were OK by me.

Still, Mom saw it differently: “You’re making him into a fool,” she would say, whenever I would head into the rabbit-hole of dad’s narratives. I was turning his delusion into an amusement. Actually, it was empathy. She would learn this from Dad’s professional caregivers, who got him to laugh and relax. For them, it was easier: After all, they’d never known him any other way, and didn’t feel the need to challenge the confused man he’d become. 

Our untruths helped a very lost man to live more fully in the moment — a feat I can’t always manage as a healthy and cognizant middle-aged man. Still, I sometimes felt like a nighttime soap-opera character, conning an aging patriarch by omitting or creating truths.

In moments of self-doubt, I’d gauge the potential consequences: What bad reaction or outcome was I avoiding? Was I keeping him or others from danger? If Dad told me he was going to have dinner soon with my deceased grandparents, why shatter an illusion that was set to self-destruct in 10 minutes, anyway? 

But when he plowed his Buick Century through a neighbor’s wooden fence into a thankfully empty backyard, I dropped the internal deliberation and blamed his license revocation on a “DMV investigation.” (In truth, I asked the patrolman at the scene to file a complaint.) Dad was, after all, an insurance agent. I felt he’d respect my cautious ways.

“I don't think Alzheimer's will ever take away somebody's dignity, but we are the ones who do it. And a loving family does it unintentionally,” Joanne Koenig Costa, an Alzheimer’s patient-care expert, said during a talk-radio discussion years ago. Thankfully, we avoided this. In the last stages of my father’s life, before he died at 81 of complications from his disease, he was often confused, but in his own way, also joyful.

Perhaps the dignity and calm we protected with consistent, loving falsehoods helped to create the best possible outcome in the worst of circumstances.

Ron Bel Bruno writes about culture, urban living and relationships. He lives in Manhattan.

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