Compassion. A noun with a long historical lineage, sometimes even contentious as to its definition, variability in meaning as cultures/humans try to interpret and connect meaning to actions for and to others.  

Let me start with a personal experience.

Amid the gravel I saw an uninviting cut on her knee. Sharp rocks do not cushion a fall.  A stranger stood near us and said: “May I help? I’m an M.D., a pediatrician, but here of minimal value.”  I mumbled, “I’m even more worthless: a Ph.D. in business.” We got her up, slowly. I nodded gratitude. An unknown person was offering help.

“I suggest a visit to a neurologist tomorrow” were his departing words. 

The woman who had fallen was my wife; the event was over 17 years ago. The diagnosis was Parkinson’s. Might any of us have paused to help? Perhaps: Hundreds of similar stories go untold. So began my daily quiet whispers of support. So were my affectionate soul-words of love, and concern from persons unknown and known to me. Depth of unease was parallel to the continuum intensity of the illness.

Until her thread with life was severed last year. Others’ quiet tears joined my soul-memories.

Purposely, I have not offered a definition of Compassion. The rhythm of the word has untold echoes in the lives of many cultures in the world. New currents of thought reside in observers, families and participants in living/working with drawn-out illnesses or those happening in an instant.  

“I know it when I see it or read it” is what some say of pornography. Perhaps that is true of Compassion. Its etymology or history is found in two languages. Far be it beyond me for an analysis, but seemingly a blending of and borrowing from Greek and Latin.  The online etymology dictionary is a successful source for those interested in a more thorough analysis.

Religion, faiths and culture in compassion

What can we draw from this concept of compassion, both as people and within the realm of caregiving? Since the dawn of man there has been a concern for others in stressed circumstances. Many continuing care retirement communities were founded on religious foundations, with a core mantra for helping others. Many mainstream faiths played a significant role in their concept of Compassion. It is an error to think Christianity laid the foundation. Take a brief look at other religions’ early awareness of and innate feeling for others in the need of physical and mental help.  Similarity at the macro/micro level outdistances the differences. Three quick and incomplete samples.

Hinduism suggests Compassion is a virtue, a natural part of every human. This innate human ingredient desires goodness for the welfare of another person(s). Among the many other variations is the concept of one’s self-feeling for the discomfort of another. Judaism suggests that God is the giver of Compassion. That is showing pity and mercy for another’s helplessness and attempting to relieve it. Apt is the Golden Rule of self-feeling for others’, “Do onto others as one would do onto oneself.”

Christianity parallels Judaism in suggesting God is the father of Compassion. A Biblical quotation (King James version) from second Corinthians 1:3-4 is a capsule summary:  3. “Blessed be God…of all comfort; 4. Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God..  

Those three religions and spiritual beliefs suggests that in similar forms the concept of Compassion is inherent in other religions.  That conclusion can be extended to include Buddhism, Islam, Jainism and many other variations.

Qualities related to compassion in CCRB’s

Thus if there is an innate Compassion in all of us, it is logical that that attribute be a main characteristic of those working, living with seniors — and others.  The correlation of age with the need for assistance is undeniable. Here is what I’ve learned about showing compassion to those who are ill:

  • Tone of voice

A softer voice, a smoother voice, a friendlier voice.  How? Many popular TV newscasters—under severe devastating news — struggle to remain calm. Walter Cronkite struggled, but his calm on-air announcement of President Kennedy’s death is exemplary. When we find a calm, smooth voice, others relax.

  • Non-verbal cues

Numerous elders lose their ability to communicate orally. Long-term care Parkinson and dementia residents have diminished ability to receive and send messages. An entering caregiver with a smile and a touch can immediately bring easeConnect that with an unhurried entrance, and the environment becomes positive.

  • Eye contact

The entering caregiver can immediately established eye contact with the resident, putting us at ease.

  • Patience

Any sign of haste, of rushing is a negative. A resident’s world moves slowly. Caregivers are under time pressure, but their focus is singular:  primarily on the resident individual.

  • Touch

Gently, slowly touching an arm or holding a hand can be relaxing, avoiding abruptness. Several ill persons I visited sought my hand; a symmetry to merge long contours of friendship. Often it was the final goodbye.

  • Side by side

An unforgettable image were two LTC residents side-by-side viewing a TV program.  Both smiled as I approached them. I even saw the two ladies extend their hands from their wheelchair to touch the other.

Of course the list of caregiver and a loved one’s ways to show love and Compassion can be extended. But I also have a final thought, of how worldwide the demand for caregivers is high. Recently, I’ve met many caregivers from other parts of the word, from India to the Ivory Coast. Often they are taking care of a geographically distant parent. To provide for that parent is the epitome of compassion. And it reminds me that no matter where we are from, compassion is universal. 

Herb Hildebrandt, Ph.D., Hl.D, is Professor Emeritus at the Ross School of Business and Professor Emeritus Communication (International) Studies at the University of Michigan. He lives at Glacier Hills senior living facility in Ann Arbor, MI.