Empathy in Action: Enhancing Dementia Care in Hospice through Experiential Learning



Patients with dementia form a fast-increasing proportion of those entering hospice care. Is your staff prepared to compassionately care for the unique needs of people living with dementia?

Like many areas of elder care that were upended in the last few years, training took a back seat as we had to adjust to urgent changes across the aging services spectrum. What is abundantly clear is that dementia has not stopped its explosive growth, and in fact, the pandemic accelerated rates of people entering hospice and palliative care services. That figure is expected to escalate rapidly in the years ahead. 

Hospice care focuses on the quality of life for people experiencing a life-limiting illness and strives to support their families and caregivers during this time. Compassionate care is the center of the hospice care model. 

"You matter because of who you are. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die."

--Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the first modern hospice

Because we are living longer and the chances of living with dementia increase with age, the number of people entering hospice care with some level of cognitive decline requires new levels of education and training for hospice staff and families. 

Empathy and compassion are the centerpieces of quality dementia training. Research supports that both of these key qualities can be taught. In fact, teaching empathy in a setting that puts the learner in the shoes of someone they are caring for escalates understanding, empathy and compassion. This type of empathy training is performed through what is called experiential simulation.  

The effects of experiential learning through actively engaging in the activity is not new. In fact, this research dates back to the 1980s with the groundbreaking work of David Kolb and the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle. This proven method of learning through doing and applying the knowledge in a four-stage cycle moves the needle of retention and skill-building. 

Hospice providers seeking solutions to practical training that will engage staff, open impactful conversations for families, and provide practical, effective, and easy-to-learn skills to better care for people living with dementia should consider experiential learning.  

Here's how one hospice organization in Atlanta, Georgia embraced experiential learning to train their staff, families and communities. 

To learn more about Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle and dementia training that applies this research.