Dementia and the Importance of Objects

Updated: Jul 14



What may look like a simple object to us, might have a very important meaning to someone who has dementia. In Naomi Feil's Validation Method, we recognize that objects may be symbols and that a person’s behavior may be understood better if we can be aware of an object’s importance.

How an Object Becomes Important

Do you have an object that has a sentimental meaning? For me it’s a rolling pin, my mother’s rolling pin. I see it almost every day, but I only use it once a year when I make Kreplach, a stuffed noodle dumpling.


Kreplach and my mother's rolling pin

As I roll out the dough to make this dish for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, it makes me feel that my mother is still with me. The rolling pin also allows me to connect to the women in my family who rolled out the dough this very same way for generations. My mother’s rolling pin gives me comfort to feel my mother is with me and allows me to connect with all the other women in my family who I never met because they were killed in the Holocaust.


To everyone else it may look like a regular rolling pin, but for me it has taken on a very special meaning. For me, this rolling pin has become a symbol of my mother and the women in my family.


It is important for us to recognize that an object can take on much deeper meaning, because often an object may become a symbol for a person who has dementia. What looks to us as a simple object, may have a very special meaning and we may not understand the person’s behavior if we don’t understand their connection to this object.

Where is My Purse?

For many older women living with dementia, a purse or handbag is an important object. A woman may always want to know where her purse is and may get agitated if she doesn’t find it.

“Where is my purse?” “Did I leave it at home?” “Who has my purse?”

“Did I bring a purse?”

“She took my purse!”

A woman may be constantly filling her purse with objects and food, or she may spend time taking things out of her purse. For many, a purse may be a symbol of who they are. Before cell phones, we had everything inside our purses - we might even have said “My whole life is in that bag!”


As someone with dementia feels they are losing control over their life, they may try hard to gain some control back by hanging onto their purse which is a symbol of their life. To avoid further loss, a woman may constantly fill her purse with objects to feel more in control of her life.


Therefore it is so important for a woman, whose purse represents her life, to always want to know where her purse is. If she loses her purse, she herself may feel lost. With the purse at her side, a woman may feel she is still in control.


If a woman is always putting things into their purse - trying to keep it full, she may be trying to retain the life she feels she is losing.


Think a moment about how important our cellphones are for us today. Personally, If I even think I lost my cellphone I go into a panic thinking that my whole life is in that phone! For this older generation a bag takes on the same meaning of their life as a cellphone does for us. In another 10 years women (and men) who are living with dementia will most probably be clinging to their cell phones rather than a purse! It most probably will not only be a symbol of a person’s, life but also a symbol of their work if they no longer feel useful.


The Meaning of a Ring A purse representing a person’s life is one example of how an object may be a symbol. But there are endless possibilities of how an object may become meaningful and important to a person living with dementia.


In Validation we see some of these symbols quite often, such as a wedding ring that can represent marriage and/or love. Often a woman with dementia, who is no longer very verbal, will start playing with her own or my wedding ring. Depending on how she reacts as she touches the ring, I may ask her, “Do you miss him?”

Another woman may hide her ring and then blame a caregiver for taking it. Perhaps this woman’s husband died young, and this woman never really grieved over the loss and how it changed her life. Now. in her older age and with dementia, this woman may now be blaming someone for taking away her husband and the life she could have had. In this way the woman is expressing her anger and grief. Her hidden ring now represents the loss of her husband and the better life she could have had.

Understanding the Meaning of Objects

There are no set rules how a specific object may be meaningful to someone. There can be endless meanings that objects may have and we need to do our best to try to understand what an important object may represent for a specific individual and that it might be causing a specific behavior. Dishtowels Hildegard, one of my Validation teachers, who is from Austria, told me about a grandmother with dementia who, every night, would take two kitchen towels and go outside in the dark and put them on the ground. The family would get angry at her and tell her to stop dirtying all the towels, but she would continue to do this every night. When my teacher came to Validate this woman, she first asked the family if the grandmother had lost any children. The family replied that two of her children had died. My teacher was familiar with loss of children during the war and that parents did not have time to grieve their loss because they had to move on and deal with other issues during the war.


Now in her older age and with dementia, this grandmother needs to grieve her two children and she does so with these two towels in the dirt.


Newspapers

An older man with dementia kept collecting newspapers even though he was no longer able to read and understand them. This man wanted to still know what was going on in the world, so by collecting and having all the newspapers he felt connected.

Balls

A woman who lived at a senior facility would always collect and save the light green balls even though there were many colored balls. When someone asked her why she takes these colored balls, she answered, “for the parsley." Do you want to try and take a guess what possibly could be the connection between the green colored balls and parsley? (When Validating we often feel like investigators as we try to understand the possible reasons behind a certain behavior.) In the 1970’s Tupperware crisper containers were light green. The balls helped her return to a time when she was useful and needed as a wife/mother in the kitchen.

In order to understand what an object may represent, it can help to talk to the family and learn as much as you can about the person you are validating. You can also ask the person questions to try to understand the object’s importance. Even if you don’t understand what the object symbolizes, by understanding it’s importance, you will be able to empathize with the person you are caring for and understand that it may be the reason for a certain behavior.

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