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Using Empathy to Care for a Loved One with Alzheimer's

Caring for a senior who has Alzheimer’s disease can be very rewarding, but it also may present some challenging moments. This is especially true when the older adult’s verbal communication skills have diminished.

As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, the person living with dementia may experience difficulties expressing himself or herself verbally. As a result, they will do so in other ways. For instance, they may refuse your assistance with personal care or become overwhelmed and angry when they are in a loud, crowded, or otherwise uncomfortable environment. These are examples of behavioral expressions.

The Validation Method is a holistic communication method that helps caregivers communicate with seniors living with Alzheimer’s by seeking to understand the reason behind their behavioral expressions and empathizing as we seek to discover their unmet needs. Social worker Naomi Feil developed this method after working extensively with older adults and finding that conventional practices, such as therapeutic lying or redirecting, are largely ineffective and do not enhance seniors’ dignity.

“When we use Validation, we meet the person where they are instead of expecting them to be where we are. We use empathy and step into their world, mirroring their emotions and asking open-ended questions to help them express what they are feeling,” says Rita Altman, senior vice president of Memory Care & Program Services for Sunrise Senior Living. “For the senior, just knowing that they are being accepted and heard, and having the opportunity to express those feelings to an empathetic caregiver, can bring tremendous relief.”

No matter what situation a caregiver uses Validation in, the technique is always grounded in empathy toward the senior. But empathy can be a confusing concept. So what really is empathy, and how can you use it when practicing Validation with your loved one?

Essentially, empathy means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. When we’re empathetic, we try to truly understand and feel what someone else is going through. Empathy helps to give us insight and patience, resulting in a better outcome for both the person living with dementia and their caregiver or loved one.

Empathy takes time and effort, and it can be easy to revert back to some simpler techniques. Therefore, it is very important to center oneself before using the Validation approach. Centering involves taking a few deep breaths to clear one’s mind, and it enables us to be more open and receptive to the senior’s behavioral expressions. Here are a few common practices that are not empathetic and do not enhance the dignity of a senior with Alzheimer’s:

  • telling white lies in order to placate the senior—deep down inside they know the truth, even if they are very forgetful. All good relationships are based on trust, and when we lie, we make it difficult for the senior to trust us.
  • redirecting, distracting, or diverting the senior’s attention instead of trying to get to the root of the problem
  • showing sympathy and telling the senior how sorry you feel for them—this doesn’t enhance their dignity
  • confronting the older adult who is acting strangely or aggressively by telling them what they need to do, rather than recognizing that the behavior is caused by the disease
  • offering hollow reassurances, no matter how well-intentioned.

Instead of using any of these “quick fixes,” try to understand the root cause of a senior’s behavior and meet them where they are. Then, you can become a trusted listener and caregiver by maintaining sincere, close eye contact and asking open-ended questions that allow them to express what they are feeling.

“It’s just like with any of us—when we voice something that’s concerning us, we feel better,” says Altman.

Reminiscence Neighborhoods at Sunrise Senior Living

At Sunrise Senior Living communities, our Reminiscence Neighborhoods provide an environment based upon comfort and security. Our team members use the Validation Method to enhance our residents’ dignity and help them Live With Purpose each day. Call us at 888-434-4648 to learn more and schedule a tour of a Reminiscence program near you.

Article By: Sunrise Senior Living

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