Validating another’s feelings or words is not the same as agreeing with them. Validating what another says is simply affirming that you understand and accept what they are saying. Hold on, you may think. What if my 96 year old mom complains that her caregiver throws water all over her every morning to wake her up? How can I affirm what she says about something like that? Believe it; you can validate her words and save her dignity at the same time. Validation is so beneficial to care recipients, their family members, and caregivers that it deserves to take center stage this month.
Naomi Feil is the creator of Validation and the Executive Director of the Validation Training Institute. She teaches that validation is a communication technique which begins with an empathic and a non-judgmental attitude toward someone whose memory is failing or has failed. As dementia progresses, its course is generally punctuated by periods of clarity and periods of varying confusion or incomprehension. Whatever the state of their memory, what people DO retain is their feelings. They are just as mortified at a loss of dignity as anyone with full cognition; they are just as frustrated at not being able to articulate a thought as we are at trying to decipher it.
People who have moderate to advanced dementia often have trouble expressing their needs, and they sometimes express them in ways that can cause great alarm or worry for family and caregivers. Their speech and behavior can be described as withdrawn, disoriented and sometimes bizarre at times. For instance, Feil explains that the woman who wakes up wet every morning may be trying to convey that she needs someone to help her to the bathroom during the night. In this case, Feil suggests that an empathetic caregiver could ask, “Does this happen every morning, or is there a morning when she doesn’t throw water on you?” Mom could then tell her, “Well, only when the very nice young lady comes to look in on me in the night. She asks if I need to go to the toilet.”
Disoriented people see things differently. For instance, a bed can look like a car to someone with dementia. A validating caregiver will ask the former auto mechanic who rarely says a word and who is sure to be part way under his bed at least couple of times a week what kind of car he is working on and what’s wrong with it. Chances are good that he will get out from under there and talk up a storm. He will be back in his element and we will be happy that he is happy and communicating with us. Feil advises, “When older people see or hear things that we do not, we accept those as being part of their personal reality and understand that they are trying to meet their human needs.” This man needs to feel useful or competent or in charge just the way he did in the past.