Empathy is our desire and willingness to see as others see and to feel as they feel. Perhaps Atticus Finch said it best in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:
“You can never understand someone unless you understand their point of view, climb in that person’s skin, or stand and walk in that person’s shoes.”
Empathy, often likened to standing in someone else's shoes, plays a pivotal role in navigating the intricate landscape of dementia care. Overlooking its importance can lead to missed connections and overlooked needs. Empathy is critical in dementia training and is often overlooked or missed entirely. It opens up shared experiences, needs, and desires between individuals. It provides an emotional bridge – all critical factors in properly training professionals and families to care for the complex needs of persons living with dementia. Empathy allows a care partner to perceive the emotions of others and take in the perspective of others, and distinguish between our own and others’ feelings.
It is often frightening to care for people you don’t understand.
Dementia education that is devoid of empathy training is missing the foundational component that allows (a learner) the basic building blocks of walking in another’s shoes, thereby missing the opportunity to experience for themselves the myriad of emotions that someone living with dementia may be feeling. Emotions such as anger, fear, loneliness, embarrassment, agitation, and anxiety are just a few examples of core emotions that trigger stress responses. Those stress responses, sometimes called behaviors, are too often the barriers that cause undue stress among care partners.
Empathy training can be a game changer for medical professionals.
Enhanced Caregiving Relationships: Empathy training equips medical professionals with the ability to connect on a deeper emotional level with those they serve. By understanding and acknowledging feelings, concerns, and fears, healthcare providers can establish trust and build stronger caregiving relationships, leading to improved satisfaction and compliance.
Effective Treatment Planning: Medical decisions are often influenced by preferences, values, and lifestyles. Empathy training helps medical professionals understand these factors, enabling them to tailor treatment plans that align with those they serve individualized needs. This personalized approach increases treatment effectiveness and caregiving engagement in their own care.
Reduced Burnout and Stress: Healthcare providers often face high levels of stress and burnout due to demanding work environments. Empathy training fosters emotional resilience, enabling medical professionals to manage their own stress while remaining compassionate toward those they serve. This ultimately contributes to improved well-being and job satisfaction.
Positive Health Outcomes: Empathetic care has been linked to better health outcomes. People who feel heard and understood are more likely to follow treatment recommendations, adhere to prescribed medications, and engage in healthy behaviors. This can lead to faster recovery times, reduced hospital readmissions, and overall improved health.
Studies show empathy declines during medical training. Without targeted interventions, uncompassionate care, and treatment devoid of empathy, the results lead to dissatisfied patients (and families). They are then much less likely to follow treatment recommendations, resulting in poorer health outcomes, mistrust in health providers, and potentially costly and unnecessary healthcare interventions due to non-compliance. This damaging domino effect may have been averted by simply engaging in empathy training during resident training.
Cognitive empathy must play a role when a lack of emotional empathy exists because of racial, ethnic, religious, or physical differences. Healthcare settings are no exception to conscious and unconscious biases, and there is no place for discrimination or unequal care afforded to patients who differ from the majority culture or the majority culture of healthcare providers. Much work lies ahead to make healthcare equitable for givers and receivers of healthcare from all cultures.
Self-care and empathy toward others replenish and renew a vital human capacity. Suppose we are to move toward a more empathic and compassionate caregiving training and education framework as a foundational tool. In that case, improved care and higher quality of life for both care partners may solve the dementia training puzzle.