Twenty-five years ago, I attended a seminar lead by Naomi Feil at the Prairie View Hospital in Kansas. She was teaching a method called Validation Therapy as a means of help people with dementia reach their primary goal, to die in peace. I took this seminar out of an interest in the spiritual formation of older adults. I was able to use some of the techniques of Validation Therapy at different times in my ministry serving local churches. I had no idea I would be using this material in a memory care facility at at this stage of my life. But God did.
Working with residents with dementia can be a frustrating and taxing experience. If you try to communicate with them using “dictionary words” or logic based in current reality you will get nowhere. In fact, you can push these poor people closer and closer to a state of vegetation. These individuals are no longer interested in your reality. They have a reality of their own. Learn their reality is the only way you can make progress. This progress may be a smile or simply an effort on their part to let you know that they understand you care.
Do these people have a notion of God? Do they have a spiritual life? Absolutely the do! As I have worked with very old people who are at different stages of dementia I have discovered that even in the last stages of dementia, the spiritual part of their being is active. We I say the Lord’s prayer with the residents, most of them join me either in the actual words or in the language they have created in their minds. When they hear hymns and spiritual songs they often respond physically in some way. When you pray with the individually they are very likely to squeeze their hand. The most important thing you can do when working with those who struggle with dementia is to let them know through you actions, emotions, words, and efforts that they are important. That they have value. You must validate them.
The other day, one of the residents who normally just complains of imagined problems, sleeps, or just sits and stares, suddenly began singing the Hallelujah Chorus with a beautiful voice and a deep emotion that brought tears to my eyes. She did this after I told her she still had purpose and could be a blessing. She would one day judge angels. I think she decided to join them in expressing the deep love for the Lord that was alive in her heart.