Alzheimer's, Validation Therapy and the CareGiver

I ran across this article while "fishing" on the Internet. This tried-and-true technique can be used when you are at "wits" end when dealing with difficult behavior. The article contains examples that should help you develop your own frame of reference, techniques when dealing with difficutl situations on a daily basis.

The article should be particularly useful in helping you understand that the often bizarre behaviors evidenced by your Alzheimer's loved one are not uncommon and can be dealt with effectively. This article is worthwhile reading and is worth "salting away" for future reference.

Nursing Homes, June, 2000 by Mark Warner

DESIGNS for Validation Therapy

Mark Warner

This tried-and-true technique can be supported in the Alzheimer's environment

As each member of the group sat in the circle hoping the balloon would gently drift their way, Roxanne burst from her chair in a fit of rage, shouting "There'll be no ball-playing in my house!" Furious at the insolence of the players who ignored her commands, Roxanne forcefully attacked a staff member, who tried to comfort her by explaining that she was not in her house, but merely with her friends playing a game. Roxanne didn't buy that and swung wildly, hitting the staff member squarely in the chest.

Fearing that I, too, might fall victim to the same fate, I cautiously approached Roxanne.

I put my arm around her shoulder and supported her in her cause that there should be no ball-playing in her house. "This is terrible," I said. "You're right, they should not be throwing that ball in your house, should they?"

"No, they shouldn't," bellowed Roxanne, showing only the slightest relief that someone saw her point of view.

"But you know, Roxanne, the only way they will stop throwing that ball is if we write down the rules for them. I think it's the only way they'll listen." Roxanne was buying this approach, so I suggested, "Let's go into that room over there and write down all the rules for them, okay?" Much to my relief, Roxanne agreed, and hand-in-hand we went into the room to write down the "rules."

"Okay," I began, "Rule Number One is 'No ball-playing in the house,' right?"

"That's right," agreed Roxanne.

"So what will Rule Number Two be," I asked, and then offered, "How about, 'No running in the house'?"

"That's right," said Roxanne, "my grandchildren are not allowed to run in my house."

"Roxanne, you've got grandchildren," I said, raising the tone of my voice with delight.

"Oh, yes, my little gran'boy is six years old, and he is as smart as they come." Roxanne was on a roll now, and the upset caused earlier by the balloon toss in the next room might as well have been miles away. Fifteen minutes later, when the game was over, Roxanne and I emerged from the room, both of us just as happy as we could be, the "rules" left on the table and the incident long forgotten.

The technique used here is called Validation Therapy. It assumes that no matter what illusion the person with Alzheimer's disease (AD) is living, she is right, and nothing you can say or do will convince her otherwise. Naomi Feil is the acknowledged expert on validation therapy and wrote the book The Validation Breakthrough. The basic concept is that you have to buy into the resident's illusion and convincingly play along with it, there by validating it. Eventually you'll see opportunities to mold the tale--and the resident's behavior--into something that is acceptable and no longer upsetting.

"What has this got to do with design," you ask? Everything, in fact. Understanding Alzheimer's disease and the many creative ways to deal with it are as much a challenge of designing an environment as of caregiving within it.

Angie is always complaining about the stranger in the bathroom. She won't use the toilet while "the other lady" is in there. She says that the bathroom is occupied, not realizing it is her own reflection that she sees. Do you explain that she is seeing herself in a mirror?

No. You go along with her. How about, "I'm sorry, Angie, let me see what's taking that lady so long." You go into the bathroom and somehow cover the mirror. One family confronted by this situation told their mother that the mirror was dirty and needed to be cleaned. They sprayed it with a powdered deodorant, creating a haze that obscured any reflection. "Mom, she's out of there now," her daughter said. "I wonder what took her so long. Let me know if you need anything. I'll be right here waiting for you."

Caregiver 1: "Deborah won't eat anything. She just sits at the table and stares at the food. She loves gardening, though; we spend hours every day weeding and pruning the vegetables in our garden."

A golden opportunity awaits us here. Figure it out. Deborah loves gardening, but won't eat.

"So we tried something a little different. Though the tomatoes were days from ripening, I went to the grocery store and picked out some beautiful red ones. Instead of putting them on the table in front of her, I pretended to come in from the garden, tomatoes in hand. As Deborah Looked at the tomatoes, I told her, 'They came from our garden and don't they Look delicious?"'

Granted, such ploys are not always so successful, but many are. Sharing the bounty of the garden, enjoying the fruits of your labor that you grew together, can somehow trigger pleasant, guiding thoughts and behaviors when all else fails. Perhaps it stirs up memories from long ago, or maybe it's just the thrill of eating your own garden vegetables. Regardless, it adds a new dimension to life that might very well conquer the ravages of the disease and perhaps bring new purpose to those waist-high gardens many facilities are installing these days.

Taking validation to the next step often involves anticipating the problem and creating the illusion. Validation, also referred to as deceptive therapy, white lies and fiblets, means creating a story--in the best interest of the person who is "confused."

"Dad, who's president? Do you remember his name?"

"Of course l do, it's Roosevelt!"

If your family member believes it is the 1930s, so be it. As he regresses in time, so do his memories of values, experiences and people. What was important then becomes important now!

Given residents' belief that they are living when Roosevelt was president, what would the world have been like back then? What would the good experiences and environmental features have been? How can we recreate the familiar feelings of that period in a convincing and subtle way?

For example, those were the days when they hung the clothes on a line in the back yard. Isn't that the kind of good and secure feeling we would want to recreate--possibly by merely providing a clothesline? Others might be enjoying the time when they were raising their families. What better way to indulge them than by allowing them to once again care for their spouse or children by hanging "their" clothes out to dry?

Or, perhaps they have less comforting memories.

Caregiver 2: "Mom collects everything--rubber bands, paper clips paper...everything! And she stores them everywhere. You can hardly walk in her room, there is so much stuff in there!"

Perhaps Mom is reliving times when the country was at war, when every little scrap was valuable in the war effort, or the Great Depression, when times were so tough that you had to keep everything, when nothing that might be useful was thrown out. Environmental validation then might mean providing easy-to-see drawers, trunks or cabinets to store these important items.

How were evenings spent in the good ol' days (before TV, let's say)? Many families spent hours sitting on the porch, watching people go by, talking to neighbors, etc. Why not create a porch, complete with rockers and swing gliders? Locate it carefully and safely, but within view of interesting activities (maybe a playground where children play). Make sure it is secure for those who might try to leave or climb over the railing; it should also be far enough from strangers outside who might be perceived as intruding into their space. Perhaps a screened porch would do the trick.

One should also beware of environmental miscues.

"Bruce, why aren't you eating?"

"I didn't bring my wallet and can't pay for the meal."

Although Bruce is living in an assisted living facility and doesn't have to pay for his meal, he doesn't realize that. As far as he is concerned, this large, beautiful dining room is a restaurant, and the more he eats, the bigger the bill. Perhaps if we had divided the room into smaller, more homelike dining rooms and spared the expense of the huge chandelier, Bruce would feel more comfortable with his home-cooked meal.

Don't forget that little environmental touches can mean a lot.

Caregiver 3: "My mother refused to take a bath. For years, soaking in a warm tub of water had been the highlight of her day. But now, for some reason, she feared the tub and everything it represented. Eventually she confided in me, relating a childhood story about a little girl who got sucked down the bathtub drain. She recalled that tale and, like that little girl, she was afraid that she too might fall victim to that terrible fate. The solution: We put a mat over the drain. Her fear suddenly disappeared."

In a daycare center, angry and impatient residents wait for their rides to take them home. Each time the door opens, one, two or even three of them race to it and powerfully attempt to get into the van, which has actually arrived to transport someone else. Staff members intervene, often unsuccessfully, overcome by the strength and determination of people with a very important cause (the van is there for them). If we, as facility planners and designers, can anticipate this kind of behavior, we can plan door placement to eliminate visibility of the van outside, thus avoiding this upsetting and potentially volatile situation. There are design solutions for problems like these, if problems are simply acknowledged and thought about ahead of time.

Although the stories I've recounted are all too familiar to healthcare professionals, they are often "Greek" to design professionals. Nevertheless, it is a design credo: To design for any client, you have to understand the client. Why should those who have Alzheimer's disease be treated any differently?

We are only in the earliest days of learning how to design for dementia. Hopefully, there will soon be a cure for these devastating diseases, making an article such as this a moot exercise. But until then, we must continue to delve into our creative minds, take chances and discover what works and what doesn't for this population. Nursing home/assisted living managers should help designers understand how people with dementia perceive and interpret their worlds. Only when equipped with this knowledge can we designers begin to address these problems with the tools that we have available to us.

Mark Warner, AIA, is the author of The Complete Guide to Alzheimer's Proofing Your Home, the first book in the Homes That Care series on age related conditions and creating homes for those suffering from them. His firm, Ageless Design, Inc., offers consultation and assistance in the design of environments for seniors. For more information, call (561) 745-0210, visit the Web site at or e-mail

The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers: Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping an Aging Parent

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