You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. –Harper Lee
All we need is love ~ especially working in eldercare. The basic human need for love and belonging is an imperative to life!
According to the latest neuroscience research, 98% of people (the exceptions include those with psychopathic tendencies) have the ability to empathize wired into their brains – a capacity for stepping into the shoes of others and understanding their feelings and perspectives.
Empathy is a key ingredient of nurturing relationships and can forge loving and safe connections.
Here are some stories of empathetic communication break-through moments I have observed working with those living with dementia:
Paul is spending the entire morning walking the halls and calling out his wife’s name. “Dolly, Dolly, Dolly!” A well-meaning care team member says, “Dolly went shopping, she will be back later.” Paul begins to wail and scream her name, “Dolly, Dolly, Dolly!” He is looking for her everywhere and is very upset he can’t find her. Another care team member utilizing empathetic communication says, “Tell me about Dolly. What color are her eyes? What do you miss most about her?” After a few minutes, Paul says, “She has been gone a long time, I really miss her hugs.”
The first well meaning care team member has sympathy for Paul and told a ‘therapeutic lie‘. Paul knows deep inside that Dolly has been gone for 20 years, and he is communicating that he misses her. He was invited to share and release his deep feelings and heartbreak to the second care team member who listened with empathy and love.
Madeline starts pacing at 4:30 every afternoon to go home to her children. “I want to go home! I need to get home to my children!” A well-meaning care team member says, “Sit down. Everything’s OK. Let’s go have a cookie.” Madeline gets more and more nervous, agitated, and upset.Another care team member utilizing empathetic communication asks Madeline, “What is the worst thing that will happen if you can’t get home?” Madeline expresses her vivid memory of having left her children alone. Her fears are expressed to a trusted empathetic listener, and her painful feelings are diminished.
The first well meaning care team member has sympathy for Madeline, and she used ‘re-direction‘ to try to calm Madeline’s fears. Madeline is reliving a vivid memory of leaving her children alone at home. She needs to express her fears to an empathetic listener who is willing to enter Madeline’s reality to relieve her fears.
Listening with empathy builds trust, reduces anxiety and restores dignity. Painful feelings that are expressed and acknowledged by an empathetic listener will diminish.
Painful feelings that are ignored or suppressed will gain in strength. The power of empathy to connect and to relieve pain that is pent up inside can bring peace of mind to those living with dementia.
Empathy is an expression of non-judgemental love and a connection to another human being. Yes, indeed, love does belong in the workplace!
If these 8th graders, below, can define and act with empathy, we are all capable of acting with empathy. Listen to the wisdom of these children.
Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes. –Theodore Dreiser
About the Author: Jean Garboden is the Director of Education and Innovation at Compass Senior Living, located in Eugene Oregon. Jean is an Elder Advocate and Eden Alternative Educator with over 30 years’ experience in not-for-profit and for-profit health care organizations. She is honored to lead the mission and values culture development for Compass Senior Living. Jean lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she enjoys the weather and volunteers with the Nevadans for the Common Good, advocating for caregivers and elders in southern Nevada