By Oran Aviv
Naomi Feil’s contributions to the field of aging and dementia care cannot be overstated. Her groundbreaking work on the Validation Method, along with her empathy and understanding towards older adults, have made her a legend in the field.
Every stage of Naomi’s life contributed to her unique perspective of understanding older people with cognitive decline. I’d like to share today what I have learned and am continuing to learn about this truly remarkable woman.
Naomi Feil’s Unique Childhood
Naomi Feil was a Jewish child who fled Germany with her parents and settled in Cleveland, Ohio at the age of four. Despite being Jewish and having to escape the Nazis, Naomi was teased by her classmates who gave her a hard time about her German accent, calling her a Nazi. This experience was challenging for her in school, but it also helped her understand the experience of being misunderstood.
Growing up, Naomi lived inside the Montefiore Nursing Home where her parents worked. Her father was the administrator, and her mother was the social worker. Naomi spent a lot of time with the older residents of the home. She would greet them in the morning and share stories with them about her day when she returned home from school. One of her older friends even encouraged her to keep a diary.
Naomi had a close relationship with an older woman who lived in the nursing home. The residents were not allowed to leave the home alone, but when the head nurse had left, the older woman would call Naomi and the two of them would sneak out together to chat and enjoy a soda at the corner drugstore.
However one time they were caught by the nursing home staff. The older woman was restrained and taken away. Naomi was deeply upset by this and couldn't understand why they would do that to her friend.
Naomi's childhood experiences with the residents of the nursing home influenced her later work with older people who have memory loss. She saw them as friends, rather than as old and senile, and this perspective allowed her to connect with them in a way that many others could not.
Naomi Feil the Actor
Naomi Feil began her career studying acting and even performed Off-Broadway!
Her background in acting has played a crucial role in her teaching of the Validation Method, which uses role-play to help students understand and empathize with the behavior of older people with memory loss.
By role-playing, our students “hear and see” the possible behavior of an older person with dementia and can practice validating on the teacher or fellow student who is playing the role of the older person. When explaining how an older person may be feeling, Naomi often embodies the character herself based on her experience with many people at various stages of cognitive decline. In this clip you can see how Naomi Feil transforms herself into an angry old woman while her daughter, Vicki DeKlerk-Rubin becomes the Validation worker.
These two incredible women manage to bring people to life through role-playing. Naomi’s daughter, Vicki, is the Executive Director of the Validation Training Institute and I was fortunate to learn both the Validation Worker’s Course and The Validation Teachers’ Course with her. Vicki was constantly becoming various older people at different stages of cognitive decline right in front of our eyes!
As an actress, Naomi learned Stanislavski's Method, which taught her to feel the character she was playing rather than just reciting lines:
"Through empathy, the actor lives the character rather than simply reciting it."
Naomi's study of Stanislavski's Method taught her the value of empathy in portraying a character. This knowledge proved invaluable in her work with older adults, especially those with dementia who were non-verbal. By putting herself in their shoes and trying to understand their emotions and experiences, she was able to connect with them on a deeper level.
Naomi Feil's background in acting provided her with a unique set of skills that influenced the development of her Validation Method.
Naomi Feil & Humanistic Psychology
In the 1960s, Naomi Feil left acting to pursue psychology, where she was heavily influenced by the humanistic psychologists of that era, including Erik Erikson, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers (*see short descriptions below.) Their work had a significant impact on the development of her Validation method.
After completing a BSc in Psychology, Naomi pursued an MSc in Social Work.
With her unique background of growing up among older people, studying acting, psychology and social work, Naomi already had the necessary experience and skills to develop a communication method, but Naomi’s life had even more surprises!
After completing her studies, Naomi returned to the same nursing home where she grew up and worked there as a social worker. This gave her a unique advantage in understanding the residents, as she knew some of them before they experienced cognitive decline.
Erik Erikson: Developed the theory of psychosocial development: 8 stages that individuals go through from infancy to old age. Each stage presents a psychosocial crisis that must be resolved for healthy development.
Abraham Maslow: Known for his hierarchy of needs theory: Human needs can be arranged in a hierarchy with basic physiological needs at the bottom, followed by safety needs, love/belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs at the top.
Carl Rogers: Developed person-centered therapy: Individuals have an innate drive towards self-actualization, and that therapeutic progress is achieved through the therapist's unconditional positive regard and empathetic understanding of the client's experience.
Naomi Feil Learned from her Mistakes
As a social worker Naomi soon found that the traditional methods she had learned, like redirecting and using therapeutic lies, were only temporary solutions for the older adults she worked with. She searched for a different approach.
Naomi often explains that her Validation Method was developed through trial and error. She tried various methods, she sometimes discovered what helped by chance, but she mainly learned though her mistakes. As a result, we encourage our students to embrace mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning.
Naomi discovered that by truly listening and genuinely caring, you can connect to that older person and be one with them, but her unconventional approach to connecting with older people was met with resistance and even hostility from management and staff who considered her methods radical. She faced the threat of losing her job and was subjected to disparaging remarks such as "She's as crazy as them."
Despite the challenges, Naomi persevered and developed her Validation Method, which has since helped countless individuals with cognitive decline. Her determination to create a more empathetic and person-centered approach to care has had a lasting impact on the field of gerontology.
Hear Naomi Feil - LIVE Once a month, Michael Verde from the organization Memory Bridge, has an on-line Q&A session with Naomi Feil, now 90, who shares her 60 years of knowledge and insights about communicating with older people who have cognitive impairment. I learn something new at every single session. Listening to Naomi Feil speak about her passion for working with individuals with cognitive impairment and the enrichment it brings to her own life, is a refreshing perspective, contrasting with common misconceptions about individuals living with dementia.
I strongly suggest signing up for the Q&A sessions with Naomi Feil and supporting Memory Bridge by making a donation of $5 or more for each session. This non-profit organization is at the forefront of changing the way we approach and care for individuals living with memory loss.
You can also hear Naomi Feil and many other wonderful speakers at the on-line Validation World Congress this coming Tuesday. Participation is free, but you need to register to receive the Zoom link. Go into this link to see the amazing program and to register. Check when it begins in your time zone. “The Person Comes First” Tuesday, February 21st, 2023 from 12 - 4 PM EST (New York)
Naomi Feil’s unique life experiences led to the development of the Validation Method. She has devoted her life to helping older people with cognitive impairment by developing a method that acknowledges their feelings and needs.
Naomi’s legacy continues to inspire and guide those of us who work with older adults, promoting a person-centered approach that recognizes the value and dignity of all individuals, regardless of their cognitive abilities. It is no wonder that she is often referred to as the Godmother of Person-Centered Care.
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