Live in Your Loved One's Reality instead of Challenging it

October 2, 2015

We would like to share this New York Times Opinion column, “My Mother, Lost and Found” with you because it shares our passion for living in the reality of someone with memory loss, rather than trying to change or challenge it.

It was Ellen who taught me how to talk to Mom in this new phase of her life. The technique is called validation, and Ellen learned it from a veteran author and psychologist, Naomi Feil. As Ms. Feil explains it to me in a phone interview, this translates to “accepting whatever behavior the person has and trying to become a part of it.” For example, a carpenter with Alzheimer’s might pound his fist against a wall. The wrong way to talk to him would be to say, “Why are you pounding the wall? Stop it!” The right way would be to ask, “Is that wood made out of oak or pine?”

I’m not exactly a Jedi knight of this technique, but I find it relaxes Mom and makes her more easygoing and less frustrated. The key, for me, is to stop judging or trying to analyze or change her behavior. That means fewer questions about her past, even if that subject is difficult for me to avoid — in the past, she was my mom! That’s what I really want to talk to her about, not chickens and picnics. Occasionally I can’t resist and I ask whether she remembers Dad, her husband of 54 years. Sometimes she says yes. Sometimes she says no. It’s a dead end either way.

Respecting the individual reality of each person who lives with us is written in The Vicarage mission statement. Allowing residents to live in their own reality is essential to high quality dementia care because it lessens the stress on your loved one. We teach our staff to honor the residents’ experiences. This normalization of dementia experience is what defines The Vicarage culture, creating an environment where social stigmas regarding dementing illnesses are lessened.  Such normalization allows for continued growth and preservation of residents’ dignity and the continued development of personal relationships among peers and staff.

“Validation is built on an empathetic attitude and a holistic view of individuals. When one can “step into the shoes” of another human being and “see through their eyes,” one can step into the world of disoriented very old people and understand the meaning of their sometimes bizarre behavior.” (Naomi Feil)

Read the full article here: NYT, “My Mother, Lost and Found” July 11, 2015


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Johanna Wigg, PhD

Johanna provides professional counseling to families in transition. She meets with families and their loved ones regularly. She lives at The Vicarage and works hands on with each resident, giving her a thorough understanding of each resident’s needs. She does regular assessments on each resident to ensure that they continue to receive the personalized care they deserve and need.

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