To Reorient or Validate? Caregivers and Dementia

I would guess most of us have encountered dementia. With approximately 14% of those over 70, and estimates that 40% of those over the age of 90 have the disease, the expectations are that if not yet, soon, we will all interact with someone who has the disease.

The diagnosis of dementia brings with it overwhelming scenarios for caregivers, as they deal with more than just the loss of function over time, but also the loss of personality, memories, and the relationship itself with their loved ones.  Dementia changes communication and when it begins to rob our loved ones of this gift, we feel we our ‘losing’ them, despite them physically still being present.

One of the hallmark symptoms of patients with dementia is that they become disoriented to the current time and situation. It starts small, thinking it’s Sunday, when actually it’s Friday. Then it becomes a different season, a different year, and ultimately a different reality. This disorientation can be one of the biggest challenges to caregivers. How should you approach someone who says they need to head to work when they’ve been retired for 20 years?

Until recently, the main recommendation has been something called reality orientation. As the name suggests, clinicians recommended reorienting someone. “You can’t go to work today, you retired 20 years ago!”  This therapy includes frequent discussion of current events, using calendars, clocks, and other items to refocus patients to the here and now.  Research has suggested there is a small cognitive benefit with reality orientation, better with mild forms of dementia vs. more moderate types.

One of the issues caregivers complain about with reality orientation, however, is a decrease in quality of life measures such as mood and behavior with this therapy. You can imagine if someone with dementia is verbally corrected continually, they might become frustrated, depressed, and even angry.

Caregivers begin to dread their interactions with loved ones, spending the majority of time reorienting them to reality. This task can spiral a pleasant encounter into something that ends in silence, both parties frustrated.

There is an alternative. In Hospice, we use something called validation therapy.  With validation therapy, caregivers enter into the world of the person with dementia. “Tell me, what’s on the agenda for work today?”  Instead of trying to bring that person into your world, validation therapy asks you to step into his world. Caregivers report increased communication, increased positive mood of the patient, and greater satisfaction with the relationship.

The idea behind validation therapy is that of respect. Even if a memory being told is incorrect, the wrong place or the wrong people, as caregivers we can smile and go along with it. This essentially validates the person with the memory, and despite the dementia, they feel heard and loved and thus everyone involved has a better quality experience.

For those who have worried about doing harm by encouraging the improbable things patients with dementia talk about, now you know it can be beneficial and is a true therapy.

As with most medical things, there is never an absolute. Sometimes a combination of both therapies works the best. With such a difficult disease, I think anything that can make the day to day interactions more positive should be considered.

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