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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Huelat

Naomi Feil – A Personal Tribute to the Godmother of Person-Centered Care

Originator of the Validation Theory
Naomi Feil The Godmother of Person-Centered Care for those with dementia

Have you had the pleasure of discovering Naomi Feil and the incredible impact she made on patient-centered care, especially for the elderly and those with dementia? If not, allow me to share my virtual encounter with this remarkable woman during my dementia research.

Naomi Feil, a gerontologist extraordinaire, is the visionary mind behind Validation Therapy, a revolutionary approach centered on empathy for individuals grappling with cognitive diseases like dementia. Fondly known as the Godmother of person-centered care, Naomi Feil passed away last month on Christmas Eve at the age of 91. While we mourn her loss, her influential work, writings, and teaching methods will forever resonate, echoing the human need for the acknowledgment and validation of emotions.

The Validation Theory, crafted by Ms. Feil, has played a pivotal role in enriching the lives of our loved ones with dementia. It's a form of communication that not only preserves dignity but also recognizes emotions and upholds self-worth. Validation therapy respects a person’s feelings, providing comfort and aiding in finding peace. The Field Method (1963-1980) paved the way for the validation breakthrough, and Naomi Feil, as the director of the Validation Training Center until 2014, authored several books, featured in films, and left an indelible mark. Currently, there are 24 Validation Training Centers in 14 countries, offering services in 11 different languages. Over 9,000 people have been trained in the Validation method, positively impacting the lives of older adults in more than 10,000 dementia care facilities worldwide. What an extraordinary legacy!

Naomi Feil's upbringing in a Nursing Home in Cleveland, Ohio, after escaping Nazi Germany as a child, adds a personal touch to her compassionate approach. Her experiences shaped her perspective, leading her to explore alternative methods for working with those facing dementia. With a degree in Social Work from Columbia University, she worked at the Montefiore Home for the Aged, where her parents played significant roles.

One of the most endearing stories from Naomi's life is the unique bond she shared with the residents of the Nursing Home. As a child, she made her best friends among the residents, often escaping with them to enjoy simple pleasures like having ice cream at the local soda shop. These human connections formed the foundation of her understanding and empathy, setting the stage for her groundbreaking work in Validation Therapy.

While I never had the privilege of meeting Naomi Feil in person, her research became a significant part of my journey while working on my book, "Taming the Chaos of Dementia," especially in the realms of cognitive and empathetic memories. Her findings, revealing that individuals with dementia often struggle to make sense of their world in terms of emotional and spiritual fulfillment, resonated with me.

Drawing inspiration from her work, I incorporated environmental and social interventions into my book, offering practical actions that can make a meaningful difference in the lives of caregivers and their loved ones.

As caregivers navigating the challenges of daily life with our loved ones who may repeat stories, forget names, or lose touch with reality, let's consider a more personal and empathetic strategy. Let's meet them where they are, using language and experiences they can comprehend—empathy, sensory interventions, a leisurely stroll in the park, or shared moments with children or a puppy on their lap. Engaging all the senses, reminiscent therapy, and biophilia can bring joy not only to their lives but also to ours. Explore other interventions from my book, "Taming the Chaos of Dementia."

Naomi's therapy may not cure dementia or slow its progression, but it undeniably improves some of the most challenging disruptive behaviors associated with dementia, enhancing our lives as caregivers. Thank you, Naomi, for a life well lived and for sharing your invaluable insights.

With gratitude, Barbara J. Huelat

Author, Taming the Chaos of Dementia: A Caregiver's Guide to Interventions that Make a Difference

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