Learn to Play More Keys on Your Piano

Vicki de Klerk-Rubin discusses accepting a loss of control and learning to cope.

This article was written by a guest contributor, and the views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.

My mother, Naomi Feil, created the Validation method back in the 1970s. The method has developed over time with new research, ideas and experiences. It has not remained static. However, one of the things she wrote back in 1982 in her first book, Validation: The Feil Method, was “learn to play many keys on the piano of your life.” She was talking about finding coping mechanisms to help you deal with the losses that come with getting older. By adding more ways of coping, we can age more gracefully.

Today these words ring even more true and have taken on more importance. The pandemic has given our field more challenges to overcome and more obstacles to deal with. Many people in elder care are burning out and leaving the field. I feel that we all (both within the elder care field and without) are being asked to develop new coping skills and become more flexible.

Letting go

One of the most challenging things to deal with in life is accepting that we have limited control over things that happen to us. In times of COVID our choices are limited to getting vaccinated or not, wearing masks or not, and limiting contact with others or not.

We have limited control over how our bodies age. We can choose to get enough sleep, eat healthy meals, watch our weight and get exercise. And we can cover the signs of aging with dying our hair or getting plastic surgery or Botox. But we will age, nevertheless. Our brain cells will die, muscles will lose strength, bones will change, as will our joints and ability to move flexibly.

We cannot control the death of loved ones. If we continue to live, we will lose people. The older we become, the more losses pile up and this is what Naomi calls ‘an avalanche of losses.’

What we can control is how we respond to these losses. The first step in this process is simply to accept what is going on — to let go of the notion that we can control what is going on outside of our influence. Letting go can be difficult because it touches on our feelings of identity and letting go of control is scary. Living with insecurity means we have to lean more on our inner strength.


Every adult has developed ways of coping with difficulties. Some of these coping methods are adaptive:

  • Talking about a stressful moment with an empathetic listener
  • Meditation or any type of quiet, relaxing activity like taking a bath, having a massage or being in nature
  • Solving the problem by reflecting on what CAN be done to resolve it
  • Using humour, making a joke and lightening a stressful moment by putting it into another perspective
  • Physical exercise of some sort can be a good emotional release

Some coping mechanisms are less adaptive:

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  • Overeating, smoking, drinking or using drugs — all ways of numbing emotion
  • Escape by withdrawing from the world by watching too much TV, playing video games, reading or spending an overabundance of time online. These can also be forms of self-soothing
  • Ignoring the feelings and turning to work or hobbies to repress the emotion

It’s not that these ways of dealing with difficult emotions or situations are bad per se, it’s that overuse of them will not change one’s internal state in the long-term. They postpone the emotions. At some point, the feelings will arise and demand attention.

Many of our very old people who live with cognitive decline are expressing those repressed and ignored feelings now, after so many years of pushing them away. The old woman who rocks back and forth as if giving birth is finally expressing her shame, guilt and pain at having had an abortion at 15 years old. The old man who grabs a briefcase and wants to go to work every morning never was able to accept retirement and feeling useless. The mother of four children who never visit her in her long-term care community walks around with a doll, caring for it as if it was her baby because she wasn’t able to find an alternative to being ‘the mother.’

"Making changes in coping with difficult situations is one of life’s big challenges, but also one that continues to give payoffs for the rest of your life."

– Vicki de Klerk-Rubin, Executive Director of the Validation Training Institute


These days it feels as if we are part of an evolution of humankind — those who can adapt and those who cannot. Staying stuck in old patterns of behaviour is not a healthy way to age. Those of us who work in the field see it every day.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

So, I urge you to reflect on how you want to age. By starting with an honest self-assessment of your own coping skills you can make decisions on how you want to change, or not! Awareness can make a difference by simply shifting your perspective and taking a wider view of how you are living your life.

Making changes in coping with difficult situations is one of life’s big challenges, but also one that continues to give payoffs for the rest of your life. My mother is 90 years old this year and I watch in amazement as she adapts and changes in ways I never thought possible. Instead of giving workshops in person, she does monthly webinars. She accepts that travelling around the world is too punishing for her aging body. Taping interviews gives her the possibility to forget, to repeat and accept that her memory is not what it was. Now that her arthritis is so bad that she can’t use buttons, she accepts help from caregivers and has changed her wardrobe to adapt.

Be like Naomi. Learn more coping skills. Play more keys on the piano of your life.


Read about providing better person-centred care through the Validation method or family care partner training.


Vicki de Klerk-Rubin is the Executive Director of the Validation Training Institute and is a Validation Master. She lives in The Hague, Netherlands. She has a BFA from Boston University, an MBA from Fordham University and did her nursing degree at Higher Technical School of Amsterdam.

Together with her mother, Naomi Feil, she revised the books, Validation: the Feil Method and The Validation Breakthrough. She authored Validation Techniques for Dementia Care: the Family Guide to Improving Communication and a workbook titled Communicate with older adults with cognitive decline: Validation for First  Responders.

Since 1989, Vicki has given Validation workshops, lectures and training programs in Austria, Belgium, China, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Great Britain, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United States. She has also worked in nursing home facilities in Amsterdam, leading Validation groups and training staff. Vicki is proud of her contributions to the development of Validation certification levels, curricula, the VTI quality standards, guidelines and the Authorized Validation Organization (AVO) structure for offering training around the world.