To Tell or Not to Tell –

My mother has been having memory issues for a number of years. Her neurologist has been telling her it is “mild dementia.” Her cognitive impairment and memory loss have worsened, and I recently met the neurologist without her. He told me that she has Alzheimer’s. He felt we should not yet tell my mother, as that diagnosis has been her greatest fear and it would be too devastating. He felt we could not tell my father unless we told my mother. I am uncomfortable keeping this terrible secret. Is it better to tell a loved one of the prognosis they fear, or is it more ethical to let them live in hopes that they have escaped it? NAME WITHHELD

Obviously, you are in a horrific position where no outcome will be devoid of pain. I understand the desire to hide this information from your mother. But what the doctor is doing is wrong.

There are certain situations in which withholding specific knowledge is to the greater benefit of all involved (for example, there would be no reason to inform your dying mother about a fleeting romantic affair her spouse had 35 years before). This, however, is not one of those situations. This disease is going to dictate your mother’s relationship with reality. The window in which she can authentically communicate with those she loves is rapidly closing.

The fact that Alzheimer’s is your mom’s greatest fear validates just how essential those faculties are to the quality of her life; it’s possible she views the onset of Alzheimer’s to be a version of living death. This being the case, the dilemma must be viewed in the context of dying. If your mother had terminal cancer, would you hide that news from her? I assume you would not. You would want her to have the opportunity to initiate final, meaningful conversations with the people she values most. You would want her to have a chance to cogently look back at the life she has already lived.

The tragedy of Alzheimer’s is that it insidiously distances people from their consciousness; by withholding this diagnosis from your mother, the neurologist is effectively doing the same thing. Your mother deserves to know what’s going to happen to her, even if there’s nothing she can do to avoid the inevitable.


I’m a lifelong atheist and have recently taken an interest in Christianity, but from an intellectual, historical and cultural perspective. I would like to join a Bible-study group to gain a deeper understanding of the Bible, but I’m not sure if I have an ethical obligation to let the group know I’m not a believer and explain the reasons for my wanting to join (and hope they still accept me). DEE, BROOKLYN

You are never obligated to tell anyone about your personal religious beliefs (or the lack thereof). Joining a Bible-study group is not the same as committing to a religion. You have every right to view the Bible solely as a literary document or a historical curiosity. In fact, I suspect your undefined addition to this collective will be intellectually and emotionally enriching to everyone, including yourself. Moreover, if you immediately marginalize yourself as a nonbeliever, it could derail the group dynamic and skew the experience (because some members of the ensemble might feel a compulsion to convert you, which is not the goal of a study group).


My good friend cheats on every test he takes and has never been caught. This year, we were put in a very tough class. Half the students are failing, yet he keeps getting perfect scores. Our teacher grades on a curve, and now my friend is ruining everyone’s chances of benefiting because of his very high grades. I would never tell on him, and he’s a very stubborn kid who’s hard to approach. What should I do? JOSH, NEW JERSEY

Since you’ve already decided not to report your companion’s impropriety, I’m going to respond within the parameters you’ve created for yourself: I have no idea how old your friend is, but it’s entirely possible he has simply never considered the larger meaning of his actions (and the ramifications they will have on his peers) in an adult way. Your first move should be to tell him what’s really happening here, in the same way you’ve just explained it to me. If this doesn’t affect him (and it probably won’t), try something along the lines of, “If you continue to do this, my opinion of you will never be the same” (try to select words, though, that are less dramatic and less self-righteous than mine). If this still doesn’t work, tell him to watch “Shattered Glass” and force yourself to accept that your good friend is kind of a bad person (as good friends sometimes are). All you can do is live with his fraud and perceive him as a problematic personality. For the rest of your life, you will meet people who commit various versions of the act you have just described. Some will get caught, and some will not. But you can’t change the inherent selfishness of people who are not you; all you can do is create your own ethical framework and attempt to live within those rules.

To Tell or Not to Tell –

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