The Ethics of Geriatric Fiblets

Woman Telling a Lie with Her Fingers Crossed Behind Her BackThe term “geriatric fiblet” was coined at the 2000 World Alzheimer’s Congress as “necessary white lies to redirect loved ones or discourage them from detrimental behavior.” I have found the concept useful in analyzing my own actions as a Senior Move Manager.

The Senior Move Management industry is guided by a code of ethics that defines the values and principles of behavior for the profession. Developed in 2002 by the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM), the code includes honoring the client’s right to determine his/her own future, client confidentiality, respecting the client’s belongings, acting with integrity, and more. (You can view the code of ethics on the NASMM website.). The concept of “beneficial” white lies, particularly when working with individuals who do NOT have dementia, would seem to contradict these values. Or does it?

Scenario 1

Take, for example, a client who has 100 National Geographic magazines. He doesn’t want to keep them, but also doesn’t want them thrown away. “Can’t you find someone who wants them?” he asks. I contact a friend who teaches third grade and she agrees to take half the magazines for an art project. I give her half, recycle the rest, and inform my client, “I found a third grade teacher who is using the magazines in an art project.” I tell the truth, sort of, except I omit the detail that half the magazines were discarded. In short, I tell a geriatric fiblet. In this case, the geriatric fiblet is one I can live with. I think it shows respect for my client’s wishes and for his budget.

Scenario 2

Next, take the case of an adult daughter who is sorting through her parents’ belongings, much of which will not fit in their new home. “Throw this away and don’t tell my parents,” she asks. The daughter may tell this geriatric fiblet, but I will not. According to the NASMM code of ethics, my senior clients, not their children, determine what goes with them to their new home. I provide guidance but respect their decisions, even if I don’t agree with them.

More complex, perhaps, is the daughter who throws something out without asking her parents and then asks me not to tell them. Do I blow the whistle on the daughter? On face value, it would appear that I should since the code of ethics says I should honor my clients’ decisions. However, I also consider the code of ethics requirement to ensure cooperation among all individuals involved in my client’s move. Thinking it through, I see this as the daughter’s ethical issue, not mine. I would explain to the daughter why it is important for her parents to feel in control, or I would likely opt to remain silent.

Scenario 3

Here is an even more complex issue—adult children who ask me to represent my costs as lower than they are to their parents, and they (the adult children) will pay the balance. I recognize  they are trying to respect their parents’ desire for independence, but my relationship with my client is built on trust. Do I damage that trust by introducing deception?

As I ponder what to do, I think back to 30 years ago, when I did the same thing for my grandmother. She was determined not to pay more than $200 per month for an apartment, but the apartment she wanted was $260 a month. We asked the leasing agent if we could pay the difference. “No problem,” she replied, and she  prepared a dummy lease. Amazingly, my grandmother accepted that she was being given a discount because her deceased son had been a doctor, and she agreed not to discuss her special deal with other residents.

I have no qualms about my rental fee deception. My geriatric fiblet honored my grandmother by enabling her to preserve her fierce sense of independence. I was acting as a granddaughter, not a Senior Move Manager. As a family member, I was guided by love, not by a code of ethics.

As a Senior Move Manager, I would not misrepresent my costs to a client at the request of their children. I will not jeopardize my client’s trust. I may have colleagues who disagree with this position, and that is okay. Codes of ethics have grey areas, where cogent arguments can sometimes be made on both sides of an issue. Often it is the thought process that is most important.

Are geriatric fiblets appropriate? Maybe. It depends on the circumstances and on the person telling the fiblet. Behavior that is appropriate for family members may not be appropriate for professionals.

If my grandmother were alive today, would I do it again? Absolutely.

This article was originally published on Moving Solutions, September 5th, 2012. It is reprinted here with permission from Margit Novack.

Margit Novack is the president of Moving Solutions, a Senior Move Management company serving the Philadelphia area. She is the founding president of the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM), and she chairs NASMM’s Ethics Review Committee.