Senior Care: How Stories Generate Empathy

Stories make us feel empathy.
Stories are worth sharing

The connection between stories and empathy may not be obvious. It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But maybe words are worth our attention, too.  Consider Philip Pullman’s comment, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” Stories connect us. They help define who we are. Stories make us care and, turns out, science is helping to explain why stories have the power to change our brains.

Stories Create Empathy

When you make a point, engage an audience, or even promote your business, a story captures attention in a way that simple facts can’t. To explain, I turned to Paul Zak whose research has uncovered the link between stories and empathy.  He says stories engage more of the brain and stimulate oxytocin production. Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter produced in the brain and blood that has been called the love and connection hormone. When oxytocin levels increase we feel safe and more compassionate toward others, resulting in a more empathetic social connection.

I’ve seen this first hand in my own work. When I tell a story about how a very old person responded in a Compassionate Touch® session people are moved. When I simply point out the benefits of this approach, they understand on an intellectual level but that’s all. Stories reach our hearts and souls and that old person “comes alive” to the listener.

Mary’s Story

There she was, this wisp of a woman in her wheelchair, alone in this big empty dining room.  Her eyes had a far-away look and every few seconds she sobbed. Was she in pain? She didn’t seem to notice when I spoke to her.  I simply sat quietly with her. Saying her name, holding her hand and stroking her arm, she looked at me for the first time. She accepted my touch but the crying jags continued as she gripped my hand. When time for me to go,  she said in a weak, but clear voice something that shook me to the core.  “I’m so lonely”.

The next day I saw her again. She lay in bed, so tiny she was barely visible under the covers. She stared at the ceiling, crying. I took in the scene as I stood the doorway to her room. Not one picture, flower, card or anything else personal was found. Who was this woman? All I knew was the moment.  “Hi Mary, its Ann. Can I sit next to you on your bed?” She actually nodded yes! I massaged her hands and softly stroked her hair and cheek, a touch I often use to comfort people with advanced conditions. Still, she cried every few minutes. But she reached up and touched my cheek and even looked me in the eye. I stayed present in her little world. At one point she took my hand to her lips, kissed it and said I love you.

It was wonderful to see this woman go from profound loneliness to enjoying a relationship in her own way.  As I was leaving, a nurse came in and said “Hi Mary” quite casually like she’s probably done a thousand times.  And Mary, in a clear voice said Hi!  The nurse clearly was amazed.  I walked away with a smile in my heart because

Capture your own story.

We create a story every time we touch someone. True, some are more memorable than others but many are worth capturing—and sharing. But if you’re like me the details of a story fade quickly unless we find a way to resurrect them.   Here’s a tip. Dedicate a notebook or journal to jot down your own stories. It doesn’t have to be formal, however quick notes will do. I have carried a journal in my that goes with me into homes and communities.  Some stories are just a line or two.  A glimpse through the pages brings back memories of people who have help shaped my work, blessed my life, and opened my heart to greater empathy.  So share your own stories. They bring to life the power and validity of your service in the world. We’ll all be listening!

Hospice professionals: He’s an Invalid Now. Really?

Words have power - handwriting on a napkin with cup of coffee
Words have power – handwriting on a napkin with cup of coffee

“He’s an invalid now.” These words were uttered by a hospice caregiver. I can’t recall  I heard this comment, but it wasn’t all that long ago.  Now, I haven’t used the word invalid to describe a person probably since I was a kid who didn’t know better.  The culture change movement has generated a lot of discussion about words we use to describe people over a “certain age”.  (That’s me- yikes!)

Language matters:

Elder versus elderly. Community instead of nursing home. Care partner instead of caregiver.  Person rather than patient. Older adults versus senior citizens.  I’m especially sensitive to what eldercare or hospice professionals call people.  I know plenty of these folks and I’m here to tell you they are not invalids.

Think about that word. Invalid. In (without) valid (validity).  Really? That’s like saying “you’re sick, you’re old, you don’t matter anymore.” Curious, I looked online to see if this word is still being used much. Webster’s online dictionary tells us that the first recorded use of invalid to describe a “sickly” person was in the early 1700′s. Then I saw something interesting. Webster’s asks people to comment on what prompted them to look up the word. One man commented, “I recently (for the first time) was described as an “invalid” because of my chronic arthritis.” Another said,” They told my wife she was an invalid. She is going for lung transplant.”  New Zealand’s financial assistance program called Work and Income has a benefit called the Invalid Benefit.  So it looks like this term is hanging around.

I can hear some of you saying, oh good grief, Ann, it’s just a word- get over it!. But there is power and energy in words.  When someone is already dealing with major health and life challenges, the last thing he needs is to be “invalidated”.

The person labeled as invalid is still of value; still has relationships; passions; and a life to live. And he can teach the rest of us a little about the grace and grit of our humanity. How’s that for validity?

Why We Must ALL Build a Sphere of Senior Care

urban-parkThe dictionary describes a sphere a place or environment within which a person or thing exists;  a particular social world or stratum of society.  How does this relate to how we approach society’s challenges on caring for our seniors?

I’ve had the great privilege over the years of working with many organizations who serve older adults from community based organizations, churches, eldercare providers and more.  As an advocate for education and training and the needs of society to embrace our aging population and their needs, I see opportunities at every corner.   Building a sphere takes all of these organizations in a community to work together.  Make no mistake – we have BIG challenges ahead.

Baby boomers don’t want to admit it, but the march toward old age is upon us (I’m one of them, so including myself here!).   Collaboration and coordination at all levels within our local communities is a must for building a successful sphere of senior care.  None of us can do it alone.  To make this happen it takes:

  1.  Leadership and Visionaries – those people who see beyond today and know how to pull the champions together for a singular cause.
  2. Education – we vastly overestimate public’s knowledge of age related issues from preparing for old age to chronic illness, understanding services and how we can reach out to our elders and those who care for them.
  3. Teach compassion and understanding to our younger generation, allowing them the privilege of growing up to honor and care for older adults.  Include them not as a bystander, but rather as an integral link in the aging of our world.

Healthy spheres don’t just happen.  Now more than ever, we need to see the growth of rural, suburban and urban communities coming together to address the real issues of aging and how to build a sphere of senior care that ultimately will benefit all.



Senior care: Don’t touch! But why not?


Elders in senior care have something to teach us about the importance of touch. Have you ever comforted a crying baby?  How did you sooth her?  Chances are you held her close, stroking her back while gently rocking her.  We feel naturally drawn to comfort infants with caring touch.  It is through touch that we convey warmth, safety, love and acceptance.

But what about a very old person in senior care? Or someone with advanced Alzheimer’s disease? Are we as willing to comfort with the same touch we offered the baby?   Most likely not.  It seems that in our society, we distance ourselves from elders and our willingness to touch them diminishes.

Fears Keep us From Reaching Out

We live in a culture that deems aging and ill people as “untouchable” in many ways.  An image of a very old body or a person with a disability is not exactly what our culture identifies as desirable and, therefore, touchable.  Many are fearful of touching an old person, saying things like “I’m afraid I might hurt her.”; “I’m afraid if I touch, it will be considered inappropriate.”; “I don’t know how to touch safely.”

Ashely Montegu, author of Touching: the Human Significance of the Skin tells us that “tactile needs do not seem to change with aging– if anything, they seem to increase.”

There is another cultural fear at work here, too– the fear of aging itself.  To touch a frail elder can be like looking in the mirror, while bringing up in us our personal attitudes and beliefs about our own mortality.  This experience can show us things about ourselves as we witness close-up the very raw human condition of aging. In these moments, we have a choice.  We can turn away from our discomfort or we can embrace the opportunity to learn something about our shared journey of growing older.

Touch is one of our most fundamental human needs. It is a need that remains constant for a lifetime.  Although our situation, age and condition may change the need for human contact does not. The need for human touch increases in the search for reassurance, comfort and connection.

Elders in senior care are often deprived of nurturing touch and meaningful physical closeness. Social withdrawal, depression, and emotional distress are the result.  In senior care, touch is certainly a part of necessary care activities– medical treatments, personal care such as bathing and dressing, or mobility.  However the intention of this touch is to complete the task, the doing.  The attention is on the condition or the disease rather than the person being cared for.  Imagine if the caregiver stopped doing for a moment to simply be present with the individual? This is the gift we can offer.

While serving another in this profound way, we serve ourselves as well.  Our fears may soften and we no longer see ourselves as separate from those we care for, but rather a part of a shared experience of giving and receiving.

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