Editor’s Note: The following short story was submitted to VTI by Scott Averill, CEO and co-owner of three Kansas-based older adult communities: Brookside Retirement Community (Overbrook), Wellsville Retirement Community (Wellsville) and The Fields of Brookside (a memory care home that offers a safe environment for six residents living with dementia). A few months ago, you may remember we profiled Scott as a major sponsor of our 2016 “I Validate to Connect” Campaign.
It’s a wonderful and touching story that showcases the power of the Validation Method, and we hope you enjoy. If you have a story you’d like to share with us, please contact the VTI Manager at jana (at) vfvalidation (dot) org .
‘Just shoot me!’
By Scott G. Averill (with assistance from Dale A. Beaulieu, M.S.)
“Thank you, Ms. Naomi Feil for championing the cause of the confused elders and training thousands of caregivers to treat elders as treasured human beings with value, courtesy, worth and beauty. The notion of the enduring value of all human beings has transformed our lives, at work and home.” — Scott G. Averill
It was 6:15 p.m. on a Friday evening as I closed my office door after another 12-hour day working as an Administrator in long-term care. A 30-minute drive was in front of me, and I was looking forward to enjoying dining with my wife, Susan. As I walked through the dining room on my way to the parking lot, I noticed Elaine sitting quietly at her table, head down and softly crying. Tempted to keep walking, I caught myself … and I moved toward the confused elder with purpose and attention.
Elaine is one of our “regulars” in the weekly Validation group, which I co-lead with our Activity Director, Jennifer Carpenter. Elaine is a regular group member, one of the more quiet residents, but she also has a smile that can uplift and buoy other residents and staff. Seeing her emotionally distraught and at an apparent loss as to how to go on, I took a deep breath. I accessed if she was open to sharing; some residents are very private, shut down in their grief, who will welcome closeness, but are reluctant to engage in dialogue. These require time, attention, and the attention of connection through physical proximity. One elder caregiver used to admonish his charges, “Keep your head blank, your heart full of love, and let your intuition be your guide.” From my weekly group experiences, I believed Elaine was verbally facile, and she would be open to talking to me.
In every validation encounter with a confused elder or one with Alzheimer’s disease, I follow a three-step formula: 1] respectfully suspend my reality: gently enter the elder’s emotional world, accepting exactly what is so with them. I choose to know in my bones wherever they are in place and time is actually perfect 2] Dance: let the spirit of inquiry, spontaneity, exploration, joy, empathy, compassion, intuition and questioning lead me down an unknown, previously untrod path, freeing us both to fully, foundationally, in the present moment, and empowering my elder to meet whatever existing needs arose to catch my attention 3] Graciously depart: if I promise to meet or see Elaine again, keep my word and be there at the appointed time.
I knelt down by her table and said, “Hello Elaine. Is there anything I can do for you?” She slowly turned her head, inclining her head toward me, looking over her glasses and shouted, “JUST SHOOT ME!” I did not respond immediately. Instead, following the teaching of Validation founder, Naomi Feil, I paused, took a deep, centering breath, bent down, and lowered my eyes to look up to Elaine with rich, spacious attention, and let the words come from an inner wisdom, richer than normal knowing awareness, “Are you thinking of someone you lost?”
Elaine paused and said, “Yes, I am.” She lowered her head, feeling the weight of years, struggling to collect herself. “Who are you missing?” I gently kept the question alive. “My mother, my father, my sisters, Denise and Gertrude?” she replied. Then I respectfully took her hand and said, “That must be very hard. You know, Elaine, we all really appreciate your presence and participation in our weekly group meetings. You are a vital part of our group.” Elaine softened into a makeshift, tentative grin, in response, growing into the awareness of the acknowledging words. “Do you mean that, really?” Elaine queried. I said, “Yes, Elaine, everyone especially loves your smile – it lights up the room for our entire circle of friends.”
Elaine gazed into my eyes, no words needing to be spoken. Time was shortly suspended. I could tell she was thoughtfully processing my validating statement. Gradually, tentatively, Elaine seemed to give herself permission to accept my honoring statement, and then she said: “Really!” She then gathered herself, looked me right in the eye, and gripped my hand with renewed gusto as she said: “You know, you are the nicest person I know.” I took the time to let the compliment hit home. I thanked Elaine for her time and as I made my way to the parking lot, and told her, I would see her at the next Validation group meeting.
I thought of the incongruity of the encounter happening after a long, killer day. When I first saw her, I stopped, overwhelmed. Her need seemed unfair, unjust, directly in my face. Why didn’t I meet Elaine in the morning when I was rested, focused, at my performance peak? I felt an ineffable calm after the encounter; that for a bit, Elaine and I belonged to one another, knit into a slender, two-member intimate community, in a way words can’t convey or describe.
A short quote came to mind from Antoine De St. Exupery’s The Little Prince: “Words are the source of misunderstanding. The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.” Wow, toss my carefully crafted plans out the window. That is the essence of Validation – the unspeakable language of the heart.
Isn’t it amazing how the magic really arrives where we least expect it. Hiding in the stuff and the mire, the muck and the tedium of a day that pushed me beyond my recognizable limits, was incalculable treasure – for both Elaine and myself? I believe it true that such an emotive opening bows to its own rhythms, bends to its own labyrinth-like movements. Though these openings are everywhere, we must be alert for them and not doze off into wasted unawareness. To be sure, if we look with confidence, these grace-filled moments are literally all around us each day.
I remembered how Validation founder, Naomi Feil, once said that workers in long-term care need to be “super adults”, putting aside their own fatigue, concerns and personal agendas to fully enter the reality of the confused elder who is alone, in pain, and aching for a sense of belonging. I got up from the validation encounter, not at all tired after the 12-hour-plus stint, but confirmed purposefully, “This is why I work. This is where my passion is.” Then I started to think systemically.
On the ride home, in my half-hour, emotive vehicular decompression chamber, I moved from joy over the recent encounter with Elaine to organizational pondering. Why couldn’t I have every caregiver on my staff trained to connect with residents in the manner of my encounter with Elaine?
I reflected on the way I used to engage with elders with Alzheimer’s more than 25+ years ago, before I first came across Validation. I used the cumbersome, often-brutal model of reality therapy. A woman, Ms. Eunice Grace, used to sit outside my Administrator’s office, in Leavenworth, Kansas, often crying, shaken and distraught, asking me to take her home, to 444 Spruce Lane, Kansas City, Kansas. I told her, with what to her must have seemed monotonous regularity, “Mrs. Grace. You moved; you no longer live on Spruce Lane. This is your home now. We are currently living in the year 1995.”
No matter my well-meaning intent, in providing what I saw to be critical and necessary information, this pat story seldom improved anything and usually resulted in a heightened degree of agitation for Mrs. Grace. Then two or three years later and Jennifer Carpenter, my longtime Activities Director, brought back a VF/Validation/Fantasy book authored by Naomi Feil and sold at one of her workshops, which said, “Every elder has a right to their own reality. You must be firmly grounded in yours before you can freely travel with them in theirs.” I had an enlightening “Ah-ha” moment in reading this; it brought light that I could access to my encounter with Mrs. Grace and others like her. I began my three-decade-plus joyous inquiry into connecting with my residents.
I thought next, how hard I had worked over the same two decades to try to train all caregivers – from custodians to CNAs to cooks to maintenance staff to gardeners – to enter the realities of our confused and Alzheimer’s-affected residents. I had a running battle of dialogue with those who conducted the training with me: can empathy and intuition be taught or do they have to be innately present in the student-caregiver?
Some caregivers, in my experience, catch onto Validation like fish to water; they are absolute naturals – it is as if this is what they were born to do. But what about the rest of us? Often, we struggle with the three-step formula; many of us openly resist the necessary suspension of our life-meaning patterns; we fear spontaneity and the freedom of the dance, as if the un-trod choreography was more than a little imposing. So, too, many of us make promises or say words that, due to busyness, forgetfulness or just a hectic schedule, don’t allow us to fulfill loving, meaningful intentions.
Often, caregivers fight to suspend their own realities. We’re reluctant to brave the contradictions and uneasiness that come as we commit ourselves to a realm of otherness, fantasy, and yesteryear … times filled, not just with scattered cobwebs of the past, but replete, for our confused elders, with their own concrete realities. Still, even among those battles, if we persist, we shall ultimately prevail.
The road of arriving is not without its share of difficulties. It is like the quote from the long poem, “Prometheus Unbound,” by the English Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates.” Many of us caregivers must bear the gateway uncomfortable-ness of entering another’s reality. Every invigorating swim starts with the initial shock of cold water, and carries resistance with it. We must courageously go through the channel of our own disillusionment, brokenness and frustration. We battle repeated foibles, missteps and countless incidents where we fall short of our best, our most effective selves. Yet, onward we march.
If we endure, we will and must bear fruit, simply by holding onto the eagerness, desire and hunger to make a difference in the lives of our nursing home family. Intuition, then, becomes the acquisition of uncanny insight. It is natural knowing apart from logic. From here, it is an easy stretch to arrive at empathy. As we deeply feel the situation, motives and existing world of the confused elders, we grow immeasurably in service and competent care. Yes, indeed. I turned into the driveway of my home, now not even very hungry for a meal. For me, contemplating the lingering beauty of my simple, but elegant encounter with Elaine was nourishment enough – that plus the face that the beautiful elder became a delectable lens to the impending real-world transformation of my nursing home, perhaps with the advancement of Naomi Feil’s work this elder-honoring stance will be the typical fare for the day.