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Behavioral intervention for veterans: Words that work

October 14, 2016
by Pamela Tabar, Editor-in-Chief
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When a resident is frightened or upset, it’s a caregiver’s first instinct to comfort, often with a hug or a touch. But many veteran residents, especially those with post-traumatic stress, don’t like to be touched or can misinterpret physical contact as a threat. The 2016 OPTIMA Award winner, the Texas Land Board Veterans Homes (TLBVH), has been on a three-year mission to understand the behavioral triggers of veterans and has led them to discover several phrases that can be just as powerful as touch intervention.

“You’re safe.” The TLBVH staff uses this phrase more than any other, since it has a calming effect on veteran residents whether they are experiencing flashbacks or a dementia time-shift.

“I’m not leaving you.”  This phrase has the strength of a battlefield vow and can calm even deep-seated fears of injury and danger.

“Would you help me with this task?” Redirecting works with veterans, but it works best when focused on a task of necessity or duty, something that “needs to be done” instead of busy work.

“It’s all clear.” This familiar military phrase can calm agitation and paranoiac behavior and allow the veteran to “stand down,” especially a veteran who had been in charge of a unit and feels deep responsibility for those around him.

“Everyone’s accounted for.” Saying this while preparing for bed can ease fears of the dark and encourage feelings of being safe for the night.

Always approach a veteran from the front, never from behind, says Kathy Johanns, program administrator at TLBVH. Use the resident's first name, or use military modes of address, such as "sir," "nurse," or "sergeant," or salute them to demonstrate respect as a "friendly" person, even during times when they may not recognize you.

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