A caregiver at a facility that I serve regularly said something that has since moved me to examine my practice with memory care residents.

After a couple of brief statements that led me to believe that one resident was not oriented to time and place, this resident made a great general point: “Well, we never stop learning.”

A caregiver looked at her with wide eyes, raised eyebrows, a nodding head, and said “You are right, Betty, you’re absolutely right.”

I know for sure that the caregiver meant for the highest dignity, but with the vocal tone, wide eyes, and head nodding, I couldn’t help but think of one thing: “Kindergarten teacher.”

After the comment from the caregiver, the resident simply looked away and continued speaking, trailing off about another time and place . . .

I have no doubt that the caregiver had the best intentions, and there didn’t seem to be much (if any) offense taken by the resident. But the realization made me think: Do I ever sound more like a school teacher rather than a supportive facilitator when communicating with older adults? Do my residents ever feel like they are being approved instead of validated? There’s no approval necessary; after all, it’s the residents with all the wisdom and life experience! It’s the residents who come up with brilliant insights like “We never stop learning,” which inadvertently assist even in the therapeutic process of others in the group. My job is to facilitate and be witness to the unveiling of the already-present beauty, depth, creativity, healing, and whatever unknown additional wonder that happens to come out.

Needless to say, I have since kept up a higher-than-normal self-awareness about my own communication style with memory care residents.

According to the list of communication tips from the Alzheimer’s Association, maintaining good eye contact, avoiding criticism, using short, simple sentences, and calling the person by name is all appropriate and good. But how about vocal tone? How about speaking to the person as if he/she, in many ways, is the “teacher.” How about if we replace approval with validation (acceptance, understanding, and nurturing). How about if we make a distinction between the two.

I have more to say, but I’m going to pause here to take a break. To be continued. . . Some time soon, I’d like to write more and reference Therapeutic Uses of Music with Older Adults, Caregiver’s Path to Compassionate Decision-Making, and maybe a couple others. And I bet there are some fabulous therapists out there with more resources to add. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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