Today’s post is from Bobbi Jo Curty, our team’s veteran family navigator. Bobbi Jo is an experienced geriatric social worker and one of our Caregiving Advice coaches. She’ll regularly share her perspectives from the field here on the blog. Read more about Bobbi Jo’s background and passion for quality elder care.
Empathy is one of the core social work principles that has always resonated with me. This principle has guided me in both my professional and in my personal life as I truly attempt to understand another person’s physical, mental, and emotional experiences. And what I’ve learned through my career and life so far? What a great challenge — and blessing — it is for a caregiver to exude empathy!
Embracing empathy is not necessarily an easy trait to develop. The mundane tasks caregivers must perform day in and day out are often physically, mentally, and emotionally draining, leaving little in their own cup from which to replenish. This leads to frustration, impatience, burnout, or compassion fatigue — and it’s the reason many caregivers wonder, How can I empathize when I’m at my wit’s end?
This is where self-care becomes a necessity. How are you making this caregiving life work for you? How are you serving yourself so you can also serve your loved one? Are you creating pockets of free time for yourself? Are you able to engage in enjoyable activities? Are you taking quiet time for yourself? Once you address some of those imbalances, really seeing your loved one through a different set of eyes becomes much easier.
Here are three practical ways to develop empathy as a caregiver:
Focus on Reflection
Have you ever had an out of body experience when you feel like you’re looking in on your life as it’s presently happening? For me, this often occurs during unexpected times as I am caring for my children. I see these eye-opening moments as a gift. Because when I am presented with a moment of reflection, I’m able to feel a sense of gratitude that gives me the strength to press on when caregiving days are long.
Knowing One’s Worth
When I have brought myself to a place of peace, tranquility, and gratitude and recognize my own worth and value, I am better able to see another individual’s inherent value and worth. An individual’s value is something a caregiver’s own drained, impatient, and frustrated mind can never take away, even when the caregiver feels at her lowest, even if he’s in his most overwhelmed state.
Find common ground with your loved one, a way to see each other on a different level rather than as caregiver and patient. Your loved one is still a person, despite whatever diagnosis or functional decline he’s experiencing. Look at photo albums together or talk about lighthearted stories. Recall memories from the past that bring joy and laughter. Build on those emotions together.
The mundane tasks caregivers must perform day in and day out are often physically, mentally, and emotionally draining … and it’s the reason many caregivers wonder, How can I empathize when I’m at my wit’s end?Bobbi Jo Curty
Dementia Simulation: Empathy Training in Real Time
I once received a hands-on training by a long-term care employer called “Dementia Simulation,” which put participants in the shoes of someone with dementia. I was given blurred googles to wear, a headset playing a humming noise, and shoes lined with pebbles. I had to maneuver around the room this way, attempting to complete tasks being verbally delivered by the instructor. How incredibly frustrating it was! All I wanted to do was throw away the goggles in order to see clearly, rip off the headset to hear better, and toss off the shoes so I could walk correctly.
I learned that, although I was able to remove all those annoying add-ons, persons with dementia can’t do so.
I learned that this was their reality, and the best thing I could do was meet them there.
My sense of empathy for older adults with dementia grew much greater that day.
We can all learn to be empathetic. Awareness of our own feelings, thoughts, and triggers moves us to understanding, and allows us to embrace empathy to provide the best possible care for our loved ones.
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