The Validation Method is defined by Naomi Feil as “a practical approach that helps reduce stress, enhance dignity and increase happiness. Validation is built on an empathetic attitude and a holistic view of individuals. By stepping into the shoes of another human being and seeing the world through their eyes, caregivers can step into their world and better understand the meaning of their sometimes bizarre behavior.”
As I prepared to make my summer reading list, I asked numerous people their recommendations. Mentioned time and time again was the novel “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova.
Although I primarily work with pediatrics, this book touched me tremendously both professionally and personally. Professionally, it took me back to circa 1997 when I was doing my clinicals as an undergraduate at the University of WI-Madison. I volunteered at a local skilled nursing facility in the wing dedicated to those with Alzheimer’s Disease. I was 21 years old. I remember the excited looks the residents had when I would come for my weekly visits and chats. They often told me the same stories over and over again. It was during this clinical rotation that I learned what ‘validation’ really was. I learned about it, albeit briefly, in class and in text books, but nothing really made total sense to me until I was in the driver’s seat. For these particular individuals, I was sometimes a younger sister or a childhood best friend, niece or granddaughter. Every time though, I would say, “It is nice to see you and share this time with you.” I would never correct them and say, “My name is actually Amy.” They were always happy and content when I left.
Personally, I had to watch my grandfather, Richard Bergner Sr. (aka O’pa) live with the dreadful progression of the disease. At first, we as a family thought the memory lapses were simply due to the normal aging process. Then, as the years passed and more and more symptoms presented themselves, we all tackled things as we knew them to be and with getting a medical diagnosis to substantiate…Alzheimer’s Disease.
As an SLP I knew what this diagnosis meant. I knew I would have to ‘validate’ again, but this time it was personal. I also knew that the memories my O’pa had of me were limited… the time when he knew I was Amy, his oldest granddaughter. When I would come home from college for visits (home was an hour away) it was not my friends I would go to when I needed to talk or was homesick. It would be to the group home both my O’ma and O’pa were living in. I vividly remember the baby blue carpeting, flowered furniture, the house cat, and the smell of food. The nurses and residents would allow the three of us to sit and chat in the living room. My O’pa was ALWAYS happy. He was ALWAYS optimistic. He was ALWAYS helping others. He was ALWAYS grateful. He was ALWAYS highly regarded by others. This has been evident even after his passing.
During the last three years before he passed away, he always called me Katie. Katie is my cousin. I took it as a compliment since Katie is 5 years younger than me. I guess wearing my sunscreen everyday was worth it. Either that or my face cream regime is effective. Nonetheless, I simply validated. O’pa would also tell me over and over (sometimes multiple times in one visit) that he had an Aunt Ella when he would see my daughter Ella. Again, I would validate and say, “Really, that is so neat. I did not know that O’pa.” He would continuously ask my mom, his daughter-in-law, “How are Lorraine and Syl?” My mom would always reply, “Fine, everyone is fine. All is good.” In truth, both Lorraine and Syl (my other grandparents) had already passed away. Validation.
The day came in June, 2008 when I had to say good-bye to my O’pa. My trip to WI was not for another 2 weeks. I was getting ready to attend a speech-language continuing education workshop the next day. I knew he would not want me to miss it. My parents called me during one of their visits when O’pa was awake and seemed ‘more with it.’ I was in my kitchen when the phone rang. My 4-year old was playing quietly and my son, 3 months old, was napping. The house was quiet. I did not have to validate during this call, however. I said, “O’pa, I love you so much. It is so good to hear your voice (tears falling, but I would not allow my voice to quiver).” My O’pa said (and this was the last thing I heard him say), “I love you so much too Amy.” He said my name. No prompts or rehearsals. He gave the phone back to my father. I said good-bye, hung up the phone and cried.
“Still Alice” is an eloquently written book from the perspective of the main character who has early onset Alzheimer’s. It captured me from the first page and I finished it in 2 days. Even if one is not a speech-language pathologist or been personally affected by this dreadful disease, it is a book that allows one to step back and feel compassion. It validates validation.
My favorite quote from the book reads, “ I encourage you to empower us, not limit us. If someone has a spinal cord injury, if someone has a lost limb or a functional disability from a stroke, families and professionals work hard to rehabilitate that person, to find ways to cope and manage despite their losses. Work with us. Help us develop tools to function around our losses in memory, language, and cognition. Encourage involvement in support groups. We can help each other, both people with dementia and their caregivers, navigate through this Dr. Seuss land neither here nor there.”
This book really made me want to dive back into old photos and simply remember my O’pa and my grandparents who although are no longer alive on earth, but who are very much alive in my heart. ~A