If a friend, family member, or someone you love has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, you’ll want techniques that allow you to show them empathy and understanding. Validation therapy is one technique that can both comfort and reassure someone with dementia, helping them to resolve issues they may not recognize or understand that may drive their behaviors and emotions. Showing the right response to these actions and feelings can make all the difference in the world to your loved one in helping them cope with them.

What is Validation Therapy?

If you’re asking yourself “what is validation therapy,” know that it’s more complex than just validating someone’s feelings.  Although that is one component, the goal of the technique is to help your loved one work through the emotions that are causing them to act out. Someone with Alzheimer’s disease could display challenging behaviors for a variety of reasons and may be using them as a way to cope with their memory loss, disorientation, and day to day confusion.

Medical professionals widely accept the validation therapy defined as a communication technique used with patients where the caregiver makes statements to the patient that show respect for their feelings and beliefs to reduce the argumentative and agitated behavior.

How Does Validation Therapy Work?

Validation therapy is a multi-step process that works for several reasons. Developed by Naomi Feil as an alternative approach back in the 1980’s, it’s still successfully used today on people with Alzheimer’s and dementia-related memory loss.

The therapy works because it doesn’t focus on the bad behavior, which usually seems irrational or illogical when you're on the outside looking in. Rather, it brings attention to the here and now, without asking why. This can help draw conclusions and lead to healing while helping your loved ones remain their respect and dignity.

In Feil’s book, “The Validation Breakthrough,” she outlines 10 driving principles of validation therapy that help to better understand the condition, mental state, and feelings of your loved one with Alzheimer’s.

Once you have that understanding, you can follow her approach to help resolve the situation. Here are the steps to take to use validation therapy.

1. Calm and Center Yourself

If your loved one is having a tantrum, it might be tempting to rush in and offer assistance. It’s critical you take a moment to take a deep breath and calm yourself so that you are mentally and emotionally prepared to walk through the steps necessary to help them while still treating them with dignity and respect.

2.  Talk to Discover the Problem

Begin the conversation by asking what’s wrong and listen to the response without judgment. If for example, your 90-year-old parent is crying out for their mother it won’t be helpful to remind them that she has long since passed away.  Once you’ve identified what’s happening, reminisce and remember with your loved one. Talk about happy times, favorite memories, and allow them to express their emotions around whatever is upsetting them.

3.  Delve Deeper

During the conversation, your loved one may remember things, or they may need gentle reminders. Ask probing questions to explore their emotions fully.  If they’re missing their mother, for example, ask what they miss most and how often they miss her. This could help stimulate the emotional healing process.

4.  Empathize and Match Emotions

One powerful way to let your loved one know that you are there to help is to match and express their same emotions. Acknowledge what they’re feeling and attempt to match their tone, body posture, and expressions while you talk with them.

5.  Rephrase and Repeat

Feeling understood is a crucial step in the healing process. To assist with this, rephrase what your loved one has told you and repeat it back to them so that they know you fully comprehend what they’re trying to express.

6.  Jog Memories with Senses

Sometimes the process of delving deep is a difficult one, especially if their disease is more advanced. Ask questions that incorporate other senses, like touch, taste, and smell, to help them describe memories and experiences.

Why Is Validation Therapy Used For Dementia?

While scientific studies find mixed results on the effectiveness of validation therapy, anecdotally clinical professionals and caregivers find the method produces helpful results.

The Validation Training Institute documents a variety of behavior improvements thanks to the approach, including a decrease in challenging behaviors and emotional distress.

Who Uses Validation Therapy?

According to the Validation Training Institute, over 10,000 agencies across the world use the Validation Method, and it’s a common technique among caregivers and family members as well.

Physicians use the method in a clinical setting to build trust and security with their patient by empathizing. Rather than dispute a senior’s beliefs, particularly if they’re suffering hallucinations, Validation Therapy allows clinicians to enter the patient's reality and have a meaningful conversation. This can result in someone with Alzheimer's being less medicated thanks to a better understanding of their emotional state.

Caregivers and family members use the technique in everyday life to better communicate with their loved ones. For example, a typical belief among loved ones with dementia is that their valuable items are being stolen or thrown away.

Usually what’s happening is they are hiding them or moving them, and then forget about it. Rather than reacting to their statement, caregivers or family members could use the technique to say something like:

  • Your wedding ring is gone. You think I’ve taken it?
  • “It was a beautiful ring.”
  • “How did you meet Dad?”

In each of these examples, the prompt should start a conversation where you can listen, empathize, and get to the root of the problem.

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