Putting Empathy to Work to Improve Communication

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, approximately one-fifth (20%) U.S. adults will experience a significant problem with communication (e.g., speech, language, voice) and other conditions that affect balance, taste, and smell.

May is Better Speech and Hearing Month. While speech and hearing problems are not a condition that only affects older adults, age may play a role in making persons more likely to experience challenges with hearing, smell, taste, and balance. Experiencing a stroke can certainly increase the likelihood of challenges with mobility, speech, and comprehension. Dementia also affects the ability to communicate and understand. It is very important to provide support by wanting to communicate with a person in a way that works for them.


A genuine desire to understand what a person is telling us is a start. Empathy is also a critical factor in cultivating caring support and communication. Several years ago, gerosensitivity classes were used to help people understand some of the age-related changes in vision and hearing. In some cases, those classes might have unintendedly caused more misunderstanding than support. To engender empathy, you must understand a person from how they see their world. This is especially true for those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Dementias like Alzheimer’s disease rob a person of their ability to interpret their environment. Sensory challenges contribute to this problem. My grandmother had Lewy Body Syndrome in addition to macular degeneration and severe hearing loss. It was difficult to know what was causing her challenges, her vision, hearing deficit,  or her dementia. It took time and effort to help support her through the visions and fear. Thinking about what it must be like to struggle to hear, see and speak, it was a little bit easier to support her, guide her, and, most of all, support her.


Thinking about the challenges faced by those who experience  effects of dementia and visual and auditory problems is a start. Walking a mile in their shoes helps. It’s helpful at a time when it’s easier to think that they are doing things on purpose. By trying to interpret a world through cloudy eyes, decreased hearing, and puzzled thoughts that are scary and unnerving, we can help those who cannot communicate in a way that our world requires. We can come to their world, which is important, in May, and in every other month of the year.

Kathy Dreyer, Ph.D., is the Director of Strategic Projects at AGE-u-cate® Training Institute, which develops and delivers innovative research-based aging and dementia training programs such as Dementia Live® and Compassionate Touch®, for professional and family caregivers; kathy.dreyer@ageucate.com

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