Radical Empathy: Can We Move the Needle?



"You can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes."  Chances are you've probably heard this saying or one similar many times. I want to delve deeper into the meaning of walking in someone else's shoes and pose questions about the need for growing empathy in an aging world. 

What is Radical Empathy? 

Radical empathy is a concept that encourages people to consider another's point of view, life situation, feelings, and emotions. Radical empathy is beyond picking and choosing the time and circumstance in which your empathy button kicks in. Instead, it's a shift in mindset that accepts that one cannot ever know exactly what another person is thinking, what another person is experiencing, or how another person's emotions affect their life, reactions, or choices. 

Can we Teach Radical Empathy? 

Let's return to the phrase, "You can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes."  

Simply put, it's not until we experience another person's situation at some level that our ability to raise our understanding (and empathy) for that person emerges. A light-bulb moment often triggers that deep understanding, which translates to greater empathy. 

What Can Radical Empathy do for our Aging Society? 

We are getting older fast. So quickly, aging service providers across the spectrum are rethinking just how vital empathy training is to their businesses, missions, and goals. Radical empathy goes beyond "let's talk about" to "let's experience it" and take action.  

When communities embrace radical empathy for aging adults, they understand their challenges, emotions, fears, and much more. We can see the results when initiatives such as Dementia Friendly America (DFA) embrace boots-on-the-ground efforts to improve their communities, especially for persons with dementia and those who care for them. But that's not all DFA wants to do. They want to change the mindsets of society at large so that first responders, clerks in grocery stores, banking professionals, public transportation, hospitals, and across their community can better understand persons living with dementia. They want to see radical empathy in action across their communities.  

Can We Move the Needle?  

I see the needle moving in my hometown of Fort Worth, TX. Dementia Friendly Fort Worth (DFFW) is fueling the fire of region-wide radical empathy. They are embracing opportunities for powerful collaborations among stakeholders, building bridges between private and public entities, and practicing "boots on the ground" support for persons living with dementia and their care partners. DFFW certifies businesses as Age-Friendly/Dementia-Friendly entities, training first responders, families, professionals, and community members. By building awareness of persons with dementia, the community is coming together in powerful ways.