To validate, according to dictionary.com, means to confirm or substantiate; documents can be validated by a stamp, emotions can be validated by having someone else listen and take them seriously.
My mom, Naomi Feil developed the Validation method back in the 1970s with the goal of helping older adults, who were then diagnosed with ‘senile dementia’, express themselves, have a voice, feel respected, and continue to communicate, instead of withdrawing inward. In this sense, to validate means to accept the emotions of the other person, listening with empathy and sharing those emotions for the few moments you interact.
It may sound simple but it’s actually difficult to put aside your own thoughts and feelings in order to find empathy. It can be difficult to let go of our own beliefs of what is right and wrong or often as caregivers, to let go of our ‘knowing what’s best’ for the other person. So, the first step in validating another human being is to clear yourself of your own thoughts and feelings – to find your center. Once open and available, the next step is to observe the other person you choose to validate.
Naomi talks about exquisite observation and by that she means looking beyond the obvious and taking in tiny details. Micro-observation: what’s going on with the lower lip, how about the corners of the eyes and the breathing? Validation practitioners spend a few moments taking in what they see, what they hear and what they feel coming from the other. These observations give clues as to what is going on emotionally (or not) and are the starting points for communication. Validating includes carefully observing the other person without judgement.
To validate, according to Naomi Feil, means to communicate in a respectful, emotive way. She gathered specific techniques to use with older adults who communicate both verbally and non-verbally. The goal of every validation interaction is to explore what is going on within and give the older adult a chance to express him or herself. The validator follows the logic of the other, never correcting or pretending to agree. She is simply there as a companion, a trusted listener. We often use the word ‘accompany’ when describing the process of validation because we don’t lead the person back to reality and we don’t lie in order to calm. In fact, calming the older adult is not a goal of validation.
Like you, older adults sometimes have strong emotions that need to come out. We all get angry, sad, frustrated, hurt, disgusted, surprised, and happy. Those are universal emotions. Everyone on this planet feels those emotions at times. Older adults with disorientation too. To validate them means giving them the space to express those emotions without judgement or trying to make everything better. Sometimes a person just has to yell or cry. You know what I mean? Often caregivers, out of their own need to make things better, try to jolly the older adult out of a ‘negative’ emotion. But you know from your own experience, there are times when a person just wants to be sad or angry. It is a basic human need to express emotions and feel heard.
Some people think to validate means pretending that what the older adult says, no matter what, is true. This is a misunderstanding of something Naomi Feil says all the time, “We need to enter into their reality.” The mistake is thinking that by entering into the world of the other person, we lose our own view of reality. Not so. We can be aware of both views of reality. We do this in so many other areas of life. We can understand the views of different political parties and maintain our own beliefs. So too, we can understand and accept that the older adult wants to go home to her mother and also know that her mother is long gone.
What does it mean to Validate in practice
Mrs. S is 87 years old and lives in a memory care unit. She moved in when her husband died and she could no longer care for herself. Her three children live far away and can’t care for her. We know that Mrs. S was the youngest of 5 children and her parents worked a family farm so there was little time for the children. The oldest ones looked after the youngest. Mrs. S. married at 18 years old and was a housewife. Her husband was also a farmer.
Mrs. S: (standing by the door, yelling.) I want to go home right now!
You: (approaching Mrs. S. observing and slowing calibrating your face and voice tone to match hers) You need to go home!
Mrs. S: (making eye contact for the first time) That’s right I need to go now!
You: (maintaining ‘social distance’ and not blocking Mrs. S.) Who do you want to see at home?
Mrs. S: My mother. She needs me.
You: What does she need you to do?
Mrs. S: Well, there was always so much to do around the farm.
You: Was you mom always busy?
Mrs. S: Yes. Always busy.
You: Did you sometimes miss her?
Mrs. S: (face softening) I miss her so much.
You: Tell me about her. What did she look like?
After sharing about her mother Mrs. S. felt better and was no longer trying to get out. Her need was fulfilled for that moment.
To see this in action, check out the role play between me and my mother on the VTI YouTube channel.
By: Vicki de Klerk-Rubin, VTI Executive Director
The Validation Training Institute (VTI) is a non-profit organization that advances knowledge, values, education and research rooted in the Validation method. The objective is to nurture respect, dignity and well-being in the lives of older adults experiencing age-related cognitive decline and their caregivers. Our vision for the future is that every older adult experiencing age-related cognitive decline, and their caregiver, can feel the joy and love of meaningful communication.