For many of us, empathy is a skill we first learned at a young age. However, as we grow older and our responsibilities increase, empathy can get left behind. It can be easy to develop tunnel vision and unintentionally overlook how others feel about whatever is going on, especially when we’re focused on crossing items off our to-do list.
For caregivers, empathy is essential to providing quality care for our loved ones. It helps us understand their perspective better, which helps us respond with more patience and compassion.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand what others are feeling or experiencing. A simpler way to describe it is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
There are, in fact, multiple types of empathy. There is emotional (or affective) empathy, which is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling, which is like sympathy. For example, if you observe someone who is upset about something and you, in turn, feel a similar emotional pain in response, you are exhibiting emotional empathy.
In contrast, cognitive empathy is an objective awareness of what the other person is feeling, whether or not you share the same feelings or experiences. For example, if your loved one is experiencing memory loss, you know that their brain is causing them to forget things they once knew, even though you may not know exactly what that feels like firsthand.
Why is it Important?
In a caregiving context, empathy is a tool that allows caregivers to provide better care for their loved one. Studies show that empathy is vital to better health outcomes for those who are cared for, and it leads to better results when it comes to medical treatments or therapy.
Also, being more empathetic can help you in your caregiving responsibilities. Understanding what is causing your loved one to behave in unusual ways helps you to be more patient because you can see things from their perspective.
How Can I Show More Empathy Toward My Loved One?
There are several ways you can demonstrate empathy towards your loved one. Here are a few you can try.
Active listening is a listening style where your full attention and focus is on the person who is speaking. Rather than inserting your own viewpoints or experiences into the conservation, you serve as a sounding board, paraphrase what has been shared, and ask open-ended questions to keep the discussion going. This allows your loved one to know their voice is being heard and that what concerns them matters to you.
An example would be if your loved one says something like, “I’m sad I can’t find my favorite purse.” If you apply active listening, you might respond by saying something like, “You must really love that purse. Tell me why it was your favorite?”
Another part of active listening is refraining from mentioning your own experiences, opinions, or proposed solutions to a problem. In the previous example, you wouldn’t want to say, “I remember the last time I couldn’t find what I was looking for. It was frustrating.” Similarly, you wouldn’t want to say, “It’s not a big deal. We can find you a new purse.”
Body Language and Nonverbal Cues
Nonverbal communication can convey empathy just as well as words can, particularly for those who have Alzheimer’s/dementia.
Here are some ways you can use body language and nonverbal cues to show your loved one you care about what they’re feeling:
- Maintain eye contact
- Have a gentle facial expression
- Use a calm, comforting tone of voice
- Have an attentive posture (facing them, not turned away)
When your loved one is talking about their feelings, be sure to limit distractions, such as watching TV or using your phone. Let them know that they have your full attention.
Increase Your Knowledge
Increasing your knowledge can help you cultivate cognitive empathy as you learn more about what others have felt going through similar situations as you and your loved one.
If your loved one has a medical condition such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, read up on the symptoms and stages of their condition and what to expect. Both The Alzheimer’s Association and the Parkinson’s Foundation have lots of useful resources that explain each stage and how caregivers can navigate them.
If your loved one is going through a tough time with a personal situation or difficult life circumstance, chances are there is someone experiencing something similar. Search for resources like online forums or support groups, or seek advice from professional counselors who have helped others through similar situations.
Be Cautious: Too Much Empathy Can Cause Burnout
While using empathy is essential, it’s still important to keep it in proper balance. A recent study published by the Association for Psychological Science found that caregivers who feel too much emotional empathy for their loved ones may be at a higher risk for poor mental health.
If you’re experiencing caregiver burnout, it’s vital that you address it sooner rather than later. Read this article for some helpful advice on understanding and coping with caregiver stress and burnout.