Life Stories from a Pioneer in ‘Exquisite Listening’ and Empathy

By Sara Wildberger E

ven through the less-than-ideal me- dium of a Zoom interview, it’s clear that Naomi Feil is an extraordinary

person. As she looks back at her develop- ment of the Validation method in memory care with a casual air and a sense of humor, there’s a marked contrast between her refusal to take herself too seriously and the impact her work has had on the lives of people in cognitive decline, their loved ones, and the way the industry regards memory care today. Her revelation—something so obvious,

yet still difficult to accept for many today— was seeing the connection between behavior and self-expression and that meaningful and often joyful communication is possible with many different kinds of cognitive abilities. Even as a child, Feil knew that older

people experiencing cognitive decline have much to say and share—and this depth of experience and ability to connect led in the early 1960s to begin what would eventually be the Validation method (VM). By 1982, she had published the book Validation: The Feil Method and with supporters established the Validation Training Institute (VTI), which today offers international training and certification as well as free resources (see box for more information). Much of what is known and practiced

around person-centered care grows from her breakthrough, and senior living commu- nities and academics alike acknowledge their debt to her work. Sunrise Senior Living and

Country Meadows Retirement Communi- ties, for instance, are partners of VTI. VTI has a network of 8,214 Validation certified workers, 860 group leaders, 449 teachers, and 17 master teachers, with 24 Authorized Validation Organizations (AVOs) in 14 countries across Europe, Asia, and North America. The Validation method’s relevance contin-

ues to grow. A 2020 literature review of use of the method in nursing homes, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, pointed out its advantages not only to those with cognitive decline, but benefits to those who work in memory care: “The results of the analysed studies

report that the VM can be an effective tool that facilitates communication and interaction in care, reducing levels of stress and job dissatisfaction among care profes- sionals. The VM facilitates communication between professionals and older people with dementia, and improves the management of complex situations that may arise in care, directly influencing a reduction in work stress and increasing job satisfaction.” Feil uses frank language that captures

her lived reality—she calls people “old,” or “aged,” for instance, where it would be this magazine’s style to use terms such as “older adults.” At almost 90 years, she’s beginning to experience some of the things she has helped so many others through, and she doesn’t hesitate to express how she dislikes

“We use symbols a lot...objects or people in the present time that substitute for objects or people from the past. People bring the past to the present through symbols.”

Thought Leader Profile

Naomi Feil Founder Validation Training Institute

condescension, pats on the shoulder, and being called “sweetie.” These excerpts from a recent interview are edited for length and clarity.

Q. Can you share some of the circumstances around your early work and how you developed the Validation method? A. I was working with a group at the Mont- fiore Home For the Aged in Cleveland, Ohio—this was 1963. A psychologist, Dr. Rosner, attended my group. The group were all very old people, people in their eighties and nineties who had a great deal of memory loss. Some had lost speech. When we came out of the group, Dr.

Rosner said to me, “You know what you’re doing? You’re validating these people.” And I said, “Hey, that’s a wonderful name,

validation.” People had been asking me, what do you call what you do? They were teaching some of the techniques in the school of so- cial work at that time. And I had no name. I called it: group work with disoriented old people. That was not a very good name. That’s how the name came about. But

actually, it’s exquisite listening. It’s empathy; taking on in yourself what

that old person is saying or doing, and then exploring it, so you often do find the meaning behind their behavior.


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