Mom doesn’t know I’m divorced

She’s 92 and has dementia, but I feel bad keeping it a secret. Should I tell her?

Usually I’d say that honesty is best, says our elder. But this time, I’d advise letting sleeping dogs lie.

Dear EWC

My mother is 92 years old and is in a nursing home. She has some dementia but knows and recognizes all of us kids. She does struggle with short term memory, long term memory is better. After 23 years of marriage, I sought a divorce from my husband (one year ago). He is a good person and loves my mom and is very close to her. We continue to be friends and have decided not to tell her about the divorce, on the advice of my siblings and out of our own concern that it would increase her confusion and emotional distress. As time goes on, it feels more and more dishonest (because it is) and I am really uncomfortable maintaining the illusion that we are together. I want to tell her, but I also don’t want to be selfish and just tell her because it’s uncomfortable for me. I have entered into a new relationship and he’s wonderful. It feels even more dishonest to be keeping him a secret from her. What are your thoughts about this?

William replies

I’m glad that you are asking for advice. I am one of the Elder Wisdom Circle volunteers. I read your letter a few times and then thought about it for almost a day. Why? Because I initially thought the answer was obvious — and it may be, but there are some things to consider. I’m still leaning toward it, but I wanted to give your letter and questions(s) the priority and thought it deserves.

My answer? Don’t tell her. However, in my time considering this advice, I thought about why you are reluctant. There are legal, religious, moral, and ethical considerations in most decisions we make. I don’t believe there are any legality issues here, and religious considerations would only apply if you are a person of faith who thinks it’s wrong to lie (either by directly telling a lie or omitting to tell the truth.) She’s also your mother, and it sounds as if lying to your mother is a line you don’t want to cross. Generally, I agree with this approach, and I have been as honest as practical with my family all my life. I always had this bad feeling about hiding things, and I note you use the word a couple of times. I was even tossing a couple of conflicting sayings around in my mind as I considered your dilemma — “Honesty is the best policy” and “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”

The reason I am advising you not to tell her is twofold. First, she has mild dementia and, while I’m no doctor, I don’t think it’s a good idea to confuse or upset people who are somewhat disabled. The second thing I took into consideration was age. The lifespan for females averages around 80 years in the USA, so statistically, your mother is 12 years beyond her life expectancy. Regardless of whether or not you tell her, she only has a few years left. While I do adhere to the “honesty is the best policy” philosophy in the vast majority of situations, I did tell white lies to my parents, especially as they got older and were in poor health. I did so because I didn’t see any point in causing them to worry or making them unhappy. If there was something they could do about the issue, or it affected them in some way, I always told them. However, from the tone of your letter, I get the impression your mother would be upset and/or confused if you told her you were divorced and had struck up a romantic relationship with someone else. Other than relieving your guilt about not being completely honest with her, what goals would it achieve? It likely would make her unhappy in her final years. She can’t make you remarry your original husband, and it doesn’t sound to me like you are going to give up the new guy.

In my view, I think you and your ex: husband ought to keep up the charade. This is not something I’d typically suggest, but the reality is it’s not going to be a 10-15 year act. Out of kindness to your mother, I think you ought to let sleeping dogs lie on this one. That’s how I handled what I knew would be bothersome information if I told my aging parents. I thought about the issue of the day, and if it met the two criteria I mentioned (they can’t change it, and it will upset them), I kept whatever the topic was to myself.

I hope things come together for you soon.

Letter #: 458412
Category: Marriage

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