Feb 28, 2015

The Importance of Validating Your Loved One’s Worries

I walked into Jean’s room last Thursday. Jean is one of the four ladies with Alzheimer’s I volunteer to visit every week.

The Importance of Validating Your Loved One’s Worries | Alzheimer's Reading Room

She began telling me the story of how the Army used to bus some young women to a base on Friday nights to dance with the soldiers. She started to tell me the name of a big band the Army hired to play, but she couldn’t remember it.

Jean then became upset, looked downcast and got an exasperated look on her face. She said, “Oh, I can’t remember it.” She looked me in the eye and lamented, “My memory is getting so bad.

Sometimes it seems that I can’t remember anything. I’m going down. My poor mind is going.”

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By Marie Marley
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“Oh,” I said. “Your memory isn't bad at all. Sometimes there’s just one little thing you can’t remember. Don’t worry about it at all!”

I had just broken one of the cardinal rules for interacting with anyone, let alone a person with Alzheimer’s. I had indicated that what she was worried about was meaningless. That her worries were not important.

She looked confused and stopped talking with me.

When I got home that day I started thinking about the mistake I’d made and vowed to handle such situations in a better way during my subsequent visits.

I didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity to “get it right.” During my very next visit Jean again expressed worry about her memory. She was telling me the same story about dancing with the soldiers and again couldn't remember the name of the band.

I was ready and had a new response. I looked directly at her and said in an empathic tone of voice, “I know, Jean. My memory is getting bad, too. It’s maddening, isn't it?”

Then she looked somewhat relieved and continued talking about her worry over her memory. I added, “I understand. There’s nothing we can do about it is there? That’s terrible.”

She answered, “Yes. You’re right. There’s nothing we can do. It is terrible.”

Having validated her fear I then – and only then – gently changed the subject to something more pleasant and not related to her memory.

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“Do you like the food here?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. It’s very good.”

“And you don’t have to cook either, do you?

She laughed and answered, “No. I don’t. It’s wonderful. I just go to the dining room and this delicious food appears on the table!”

After that we continued visiting and the conversation stayed in a light, cheerful manner until she was trying to remember what she had for lunch that day.

She repeated that her memory was going. “It’s terrible. I can’t remember even the simplest things.”

My first inclination was to tell her not to worry. That her memory was really quite good. But I remembered my new approach and empathized with her before once again changing the subject.

Since then at one time or another each of “My Ladies” has expressed some concern or worry to me.

Declining memory is a recurring theme with them all. Linda told me her mind was going and that “I just can’t remember things anymore.” Joyce became frustrated and said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t ever remember the name of my daughter.”

It has been so tempting to try to explain away their concerns and tell them there’s no reason to worry. But thankfully, I've remembered my new approach each time. First I acknowledge their concern then I change the subject to one that is more pleasant.

Another example of validation is that one time Ed, my beloved Romanian partner of 30 years, was telling me he had no money and didn't know how to pay for the nursing home. I told him I certainly understood his concern but that I was taking care of everything and he didn't need to worry a bit.

He looked up at me and said, “Oh, I am so happy to hear that. Thank you so much. I’m glad to hear what you just said.”

This has worked well and I can tell by the facial expressions and general demeanor of the “Ladies” and Ed that this is the right way to handle this situation.

Does anyone have more examples of having validated their loved ones’ feelings?

Marie Marley is the author of the uplifting, award-winning book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy. To learn more about Marie and to access her wealth of information for caregivers go to Come Back Early Today.

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