Compassionate Touch was initially created in 1991 out of the experience of massage therapist Dawn Nelson. She became aware of the impact of touch deprivation among people in the later stages of life. Her pioneering work soon gained wider recognition. In 2002 Ann Catlin, an occupational and massage therapist founded the Center for Compassionate Touch LLC, whose mission was to improve quality of life by reclaiming the human touch in caregiving. Dawn and Ann dedicated time to teaching caregivers of all kinds how to use skilled human touch and compassionate presence to connect, calm, and comfort. In 2016, AGE-u-cate Training Institute acquired Compassionate Touch to add to its program offerings. As with all things, Compassionate Touch has evolved with time. However, it has never strayed from its original intention of bringing true change to people living with the effects of aging, disease, or disability.
Ann’s work in developing the Compassionate Touch program was grounded in the powerful communication tools she learned from her friend and mentor, Naomi Feil. She created the Validation Method, a therapeutic way of communicating with people with dementia. Validation is a holistic approach that looks at the whole person and human needs, not just the condition of the disease. Naomi talks about stepping into the older person’s world as a way to bridge the connection gap.
Two important questions that help care partners to respond in situations when someone is confused or agitated are components of the Validation method used in Compassionate Touch training.
The first question is, “What is her reality at this moment?” The answer will provide a clue to her world and allow both care partners to be in her world.
The next question is, “What is she feeling?”. Since we can’t see a motion picture of what’s going on in another’s mind, we can rely on clues about her feelings. What does her facial expression, body language, or voice intensity tell you? Now comes the action part. First, reflect back or join in her reality and then acknowledge her feelings.
Here is a story from Ann’s work many years ago. It illustrates the importance of empathy and acceptance when communicating with persons living with dementia:
There was a woman in a community where I provided Compassionate Touch sessions. Each day around four o’clock, she would become agitated that she needed to get home to make supper for her family. She walked the halls, asking everyone how she could get home. As time passed, she became more anxious and upset. The staff expected to take her to the dining room for dinner at five o’clock. This wasn’t an easy task, as she was determined to get home to her family. I thought I would try to have a Compassionate Touch session with her during this time to ease her anxiety. So, I asked myself, “What is her reality?” Clearly, it was time for her to be getting home to make supper for her family. In her mind, her family would be home soon, and she needed to be there. When I understood where she was at the moment, I could be with her in her world. Next question, “What is she feeling?” She seemed frustrated that she couldn’t find a ride, becoming increasingly angry and fearful. I walked with her and asked her simple questions about her family and what they liked for dinner. I acknowledged her feeling by saying things like “it’s so frustrating to be late” and, with humor, “my son thinks he will starve if I’m five minutes late with a meal!” She nodded her head and laughed with me. At one point, we sat down, and I offered reassurance with touch by gently stroking her back and holding her hand. The touch seemed to bring her into more of an awareness of the immediate moment, and she let go of her fixation on getting home. What created the shift in her was not so much what I said but the fact that she was seen and heard. She was validated, and the intensity of her feelings was diffused, allowing her to focus her attention on the immediate environment. We walked again, but this time to the dining room, where she happily joined her friends for dinner.
Care partners can gain practical skills by activating basic Validation techniques that are immensely effective in communicating with persons living with dementia. The basic Validationattitude, combined with Compassionate Touch tools, provide immeasurable benefits to both the caregiver and care receiver, and improve the quality of life for persons living with dementia.
Pam Brandon is the CEO and Founder of AGE-u-cate Training Institute, whose mission is to deliver evidence-informed, high-impact, caregiver education and meaningful life enrichment programs, improving the quality of life for older adults.