Fixing the empathy gene

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Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
If you are reading this post, then you likely work in long-term care. And if you do, the chances are good that your capacity for experiencing empathy is pretty advanced. After all, you interact, with some of the frailest individuals in society so you understand their emotional needs.

However, you might have a coworker who doesn't seem to “get it” yet. Whether they are new to LTC or seem to lack what scientists call the “empathy gene,” your colleague never seems to know just the right thing to say, even though they could be perfectly skilled, clinically speaking. Maybe you've winced after they've told a resident with terrible nerve pain to “just think more positively.”

Fortunately, there's help for your less experienced colleagues — and for LTC veterans struggling with depression or other side effects that can accompany long-term caregiving.

A new book, “Solace: How Caregivers and Others Can Relate, Listen, and Respond Effectively to a Chronically Ill Person,” by Walter St. John, has plenty of advice for people acting in a caregiving capacity — whether for a loved one in their home or in a healthcare setting.

Here are some of the basics covered in the book:

Let the patient/resident cry. This is pretty straightforward. Nothing is less comforting for an upset person than having another person beg them not to cry. It diminishes the upset person's feelings. But it's amazing how many people forget this. Just pass the person a tissue and let the waterworks continue.

Treat the resident like a person, not an illness. This doesn't mean that you still shouldn't inquire about someone's pain level, or ask about symptoms. Just recognize these people have interests and concerns that aren't related to their condition.

Don't fear silence. It can be tempting to avoid awkward silences, to make small talk, or engage in “distraction therapy” by nattering away pregnant pauses by trying out your favorite new joke. Laughing, literally, can be painful, particularly after a surgery or procedure. Embrace comfortable silences.

It's OK to say, “I don't know.” People with chronic illnesses can have questions that are too big for you to handle, clinically and spiritually. It's perfectly acceptable to defer to a physician or a chaplain in those times. The resident will appreciate your honest, humble response.

As for that coworker who insists that even the most serious of illnesses can he helped by a little positive thinking, well, a little more experience might fix that. But if it doesn't look like that's going to happen, I would refer them to a Wall Street Journal article written by a Jesuit priest who touches on the danger of offering easy bromides to big problems.

In discussing the Barbara Ehrenreich book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” the Rev. James Martin, SJ, writes: “While it is often helpful to look on the bright side of life, and salutary to strive to be cheerful, the belief that the sick have failed to ‘think positively,' is monstrous. Such a belief finds its ultimate end in the notion that cancer patients, to take but one example, are somehow ‘responsible' for their illness, because of their faulty thinking patterns. That approach can compound the misery of the sick.”

And that is no caregiver's goal.

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McKnight's Daily Editor's Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor on Monday and Friday; Staff Writer Tim Mullaney on Tuesday, Editor James M. Berklan on Wednesday and Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman on Thursday.

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