Use Stories to Help Cultivate Empathy

With the Household Model, we like to say we are striving for true home, not “home-like.” However, even in the most well done Household Model nursing home where the physical environment looks and feels homey and elders direct their own lives, one thing will never jive with the idea of home we have lived with all our lives: when you move into a nursing home you move in with a bunch of strangers.

Consistent staffing and efforts to get to know residents’ preferences and routines are a big step in helping elders feel staff really know them and see them as individuals.  But relationships go both ways, and elders also need ways to get to know staff and the other residents of their household and to feel connected to them.

What if all who lived and worked in a household worked to cultivate empathy? They say the only way to really know someone is to walk a mile in his or her shoes, but you can probably get by with regularly engaging in a way to better understand another’s motives, feelings and situation. Sharing stories is a great way to do that.

We’ve long promoted the use of community circles as a way for folks to share stories on a topic. It is important that staff share stories in these circles as well. As everyone is sharing, the line between residents and staff breaks down and everyone can see each other as simply people. This is an important part of empathy, to realize that everyone wants to be happy and not to suffer and we all experience similar emotions throughout life. When we can see each other this way, it is easier to feel connected.

Photo by Samantha Whitefeather
Photo by Samantha Whitefeather

There are studies that show a connection between reading fiction, that is stories, and empathy. The idea is that readers of stories are better able to empathize in real life, having put themselves in the situation of the characters in the story. Which came first, the empathy or the penchant for reading stories is up for debate, but there is a connection. In this sense a book club, or even having someone read a story aloud to some interested folks, can provide people with an opportunity to cultivate empathetic tendencies while giving them a real shared emotional experience of the same story. For folks who feel isolated from the outside world or who find themselves suffering, this can also be a form of escape of the mind, body and the building.

We know the stories of the people who live in our own homes. With some pro-active engagement, we can make this essential element of home a reality in the nursing home as well.

Steph Kilen has been writing about culture change since 2004. Her work at Action Pact has included writing and editing for Culture Change Now magazine and the website, as well as writing and editing workbooks, video scripts, books, blogs, webinars and curricula.

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