Minding our Elders: When complete honesty with elder conflicts with well-being
DEAR CAROL: My dad unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack about two years ago. Mom’s mind has rapidly declined since, and she has slipped quite far into dementia. She’s now living in an assisted-living facility that she enjoys as much as she can enjoy anything.
I have two sisters, and we are wondering what to do with our parents’ house. It’s been empty all of this time. We’ve paid for upkeep, but this doesn’t make long-term sense. It’s too painful to sell the house while our mother is alive, so we’ve decided to rent it out, at least for now.
Mom will never be able to go back. We don’t want to lie to her, but we feel guilty moving strangers into her home. She insists that she will be moving home when she is better. Do we tell her we’re renting out the house or not? We really don’t want to upset her. – Marilyn
DEAR MARILYN: Personally, I’d say nothing about it. I know that omitting this information seems like you are being dishonest with your mom, but your priority is her well-being. Telling her something that is only going to upset her doesn’t seem to serve any positive purpose.
People with dementia often talk about going home, but as their disease worsens the home they may be thinking of is ever changing. Your mother may be thinking of the first home she and your dad shared or she may be thinking of her childhood home. Some experts think a person with Alzheimer’s may be thinking more of safety and comfort than a particular place. If so, this can add to the confusion about what home your mother is missing.
I think what you are now doing is excellent. Rent out the house if it makes you feel better than selling it. That way, you won’t feel so guilty, the house will be occupied, and the rent money will probably pay the expenses. When the time is right, you can sell.
Meanwhile, continue to help your mother feel safe and cared for. She’s made a big transition by moving to an assisted-living facility. Nothing will bring back your dad or cure your mom’s dementia, so you must all live with those challenges.
Try to join her in her world when she reminiscences. Help her along with photo albums of when you were children and, as her dementia worsens, even further back in time. Be sensitive to where she seems to be in her life, and try to shore up her spirits by allowing her to talk about that time. Keep her room cozy with the things she loves, and help her socialize in the care home if she’s willing.
You don’t need to feel guilty. You are trying to keep your mom’s life as smooth as possible by preventing stress and worry that she may otherwise feel. Sometimes that means that caregivers leave out some of life’s cold realities and join in and validate whatever brings pleasure or contentment to our loved ones.