DEAR ABBY: This letter is in response to "Sad in California," who is uncomfortable lying to her elderly mother, who has Alzheimer's, about the fact that her husband died. Your answer was correct.
I am a therapist. Years ago, I was a consultant to nursing homes. Once, I was called in to see a woman in the middle stages of Alzheimer's who had adjusted well to the nursing home. Suddenly, however, she had become depressed and began having daily crying jags. I went in to speak to the woman, and the first thing she asked me was, "Is my husband coming to see me today?" (Her husband had been dead 20 years.)
Upon checking with staff, I found that in the past, staff working with her had always answered, "Yes, I believe he will be in later." Recently, however, a new supervisor had been hired who did not approve of lying, so she made staff start telling the woman each time she asked that her husband was dead. Naturally, each time she heard it, she became upset, believing he had died just that day and she was hearing it for the first time.
Fortunately, the supervisor was open to suggestions, and everyone went back to saying the husband would be in "later." It made the woman happy each time she heard it, and she lived the rest of her days believing her husband was just running a little late. -- PAULA C., WOOSTER, OHIO
DEAR PAULA: Your anecdote makes sense to me. One of the frustrations of writing this column is that I can't print more of the terrific letters I receive on a subject. I received a bushel regarding the letter you referenced. Read on:
DEAR ABBY: I'm a social worker. After 25 years in the field, I have found that everyone needs to be told of deaths -- but they need to be told only once. Someone with short-term memory problems does not need to be reminded every time they ask, as it is painful. But everyone deserves the dignity of grieving for a loved one at least one time. Death is a part of life, as so many of our elders with dementia understand. -- SUSAN IN DULUTH, MINN.
DEAR ABBY: I worked in an Alzheimer's unit for two years before going to nursing school. There is nothing sadder than having to tell someone as many as 10 times a day that they lost someone they love. Each time, they are hearing it for the first time. They are never able to progress in the grieving process, and there is never any closure for them. There's no good answer to that question, but yours is the best solution. -- JENNIFER IN RALEIGH, N.C.
DEAR ABBY: Ten years ago, I worked at a care facility. We had one very active man with Alzheimer's. His ex-wife died suddenly (he thought they were still married). The Social Service workers and his family decided to tell him. Then they found out they had to KEEP telling him, often 12 or more times a day! It was a nightmare for him, his family and the staff, and it lasted for several months -- until his meds were adjusted and he calmed down. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. "Ignorance is bliss" is darned smart advice in a case like that. -- TRUDY IN CALIFORNIA
DEAR ABBY: When my grandmother died, her younger sister, Rose, was alive, but with Alzheimer's. I sat behind Aunt Rose at the graveside. After a while, she asked whose funeral it was. I told her Ethel had died, and she started to cry. A little while later, she asked again whose funeral it was.
When we went back to Mom and Dad's after the funeral, Aunt Rose said it was "such a nice party." She asked where Ethel was. We told her that Ethel couldn't come -- and Aunt Rose had a wonderful time. Enough said? -- JOAN IN SAN FRANCISCO