This morning, I had the pleasure of speaking about memory care to a virtual caregiver support group. I explained the various options for those living with dementia, including day programs, assisted livings, and nursing homes. We also reviewed how to know when it’s time to make a move, as well as different approaches to the transition itself. A recurring theme throughout our entire discussion was meeting the individual where they are cognitively and, perhaps most importantly, validating their feelings.
I’ve written about validation before: it’s the acceptance of the reality and personal truth of another’s experience (even if, as is often the case with dementia, it’s not accurate). Validation therapy aims to help individuals with dementia be as happy as possible; when their struggle is respected and validated by a trusted person, withdrawal is halted and dignity restored. According to the queen of validation therapy herself, Naomi Feil says:
“Validation is a way of communicating with very old people who have Alzheimer’s-type dementia. … It’s a way of being with them, feeling what they feel. You pick up their emotions and reflect them back. People who are validated feel safe.” –Naomi Feil
I gave a few examples, one of which happens to be a favorite memory of mine. It involves a couple I’ve referenced before – they certainly kept me on my toes! 😉 Both husband and wife were living with dementia and when one had an idea in their head, they’d rile the other up and fixate on it together. To say they were willful would be an understatement. One afternoon, this headstrong nonno had an upset stomach and a subsequent accident, which was not common for him. It was both embarrassing and a bit rattling, resulting in a swift cleanup process and no further mention of it. Unfortunately, while receiving help to get washed up, his watch ended up in the trash along with his soiled clothes. We didn’t realize it was missing until it was too late and the garbage had gone out, at which time we apologetically explained the mishap and collectively moved on. Or so we thought..
The bathroom accident was (thankfully) quickly forgotten, but the watch itself was not. When gently reminded of the incident, my love vehemently denied that it could have possibly occurred. A few days passed, and both my spirited nonno and nonna were livid that his watch was “stolen”. I “conducted investigations”, searched the apartment on my hands and knees, and even recruited backup – their kids. It wasn’t enough. Finally, I asked two friendly police officers from town (and by “friendly” I mean the best of the best, clearly) to pop in and speak to him. In other words, I asked them to validate his feelings.
Let’s just say they well exceeded my expectations, and I (along with my favorite couple’s children) are forever grateful. The officers were greeted in the lobby by my angry, justice-seeking loves and explained how the process would work: they’d go up to search the apartment with their “fingerprinting kit” and track down the thief, who would obviously be arrested and charged. They didn’t have to spend much time at our community, nor did they need to follow up – it was enough. Their empathetic, genuine validation was more than enough. We never spoke of the watch again.