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 www.actionpact.com, as well as writing and editing workbooks, video scripts, books, blogs, webinars and curricula.

You Gotta Have Friends

In a 72 year (seriously…72 years) study, Harvard University researchers have been looking for answers to what makes for a happy life. An article in The Atlantic reported on the results. Subjects were interviewed at various points in their lives examining stressful events, lifestyles and so on. Continue reading “You Gotta Have Friends”

If You’re Considering Creating Households, Let Go of Preconceptions

People often have more doubt than hope when they call Action Pact Development.  They presuppose what kind of project they can afford based on misinformation and myth. Continue reading “If You’re Considering Creating Households, Let Go of Preconceptions”

Promoting Adequate Sleep in the Nursing Home

This story about adjusting overnight practices to allow residents to sleep without being woken up throughout the night was originally published in our October NewsletterPat Maben, RN, MN, comments on the effectiveness and particulars of these practices.
Continue reading “Promoting Adequate Sleep in the Nursing Home”

A New Awakening

This story about adjusting overnight practices to allow residents to sleep without being woken up throughout the night was originally published in our October Newsletter.

Mr. W. spent most of his days mostly asleep. He was sluggish, had a hard time getting up and ready for the day and required assistance eating. Then the folks of the Miller’s Crossing neighborhood at Rosedale Green in Covington, KY decided to individualize sleep plans for their residents Continue reading “A New Awakening”

An Environment Where Elders Living with Dementia Make Decisions

Megan Hannan, creator of PersonFirst®, addresses the need to create an environment where people living with dementia can make decisions and experience life like an adult.

What a Difference a Decade Makes…Transformation of Dietetics in Long-Term Care

As the new millennium dawned, the household model introduced resident-directed dining. Visionaries in the field began to promote new approaches to dining in long-term care as part of the shift from institution to home, by focusing on relationship instead of task and offering point-of-service choice instead of tray service.

Continue reading “What a Difference a Decade Makes…Transformation of Dietetics in Long-Term Care”

When Communicating with Someone Who Lives with Dementia: Wait.

I love growing PersonFirst® teams. For many reasons, it is highly satisfying to collaborate with caring, willing people to really think through and then take action to empower those who live with dementia. And what I love most is how much I learn every time I engage with a new team. This year, one of the things I learned was from a CNA who is a Neighborhood Coordinator in a dementia specific neighborhood. It is the very simple and very powerful thing she says she teaches all of her staff: wait. Wait at least 90 seconds for someone who lives with dementia to answer or respond. Do not ask again, do not suggest, just patiently, wait.

This was such an easy thing to remember that is stuck with me. And I try to use it.

Photo by Alexander Raths

One morning recently, I was visiting a newly opened household. My mission was to find out how life and work was unfolding and to be able to offer any support or suggestions. To do this I talked with as many people living and working there as I could. The household I was in was nicely appointed, wide open spaces, the kitchen and dining area opening into the living area where here were comfy chairs, a table with chairs and a couch. At the table, Marge was sitting in her wheelchair. I introduced myself and asked her name. Then I explained my mission and asked, “What do you like about living here?” I then waited…30, 60, 90 seconds passed. I am not a patient person, usually. I am much better about it when serving those who live with dementia, but it is not my nature to be patient – but I waited.

After about two and a half minutes, Marge said, “It’s quiet here.”

“Oh,” I said, “What else do you like about living here?” And… I waited.

This time she answered in about 60 seconds, “The space.” Then she nodded her head and shut her eyes. I took that as a signal that she was, in fact, finished speaking with me.

I went on to talk with others who live and work in that house, moving around the space, until lunch time when I found myself back at the table in the living room with Marge who was still sitting there though now awake. I greeted her by name and sat down. Presently, the household leader came to remind Marge that is was lunchtime. She said, “May I take you over to the dining room?”

Marge replied, “No.” She then looked at me and asked, “Will you take me to the dining room?”

I was surprised, but mostly honored. What I think happened is that I waited…. and listened, and heard. Even people who feel in their hearts that they care deeply, at times do not recognize that interactions that may be slow, soft and quiet often grow a relationship. I did take Marge over to the dining room. We ate at the same table. She said little. I said little. Yet, we were together for that time.

Megan Hannan, MS, is an Executive Leader at Action Pact and has provided leadership in long-term care for over 25 years. Megan developed Action Pact’s signature train the trainer program, PersonFirst®. She serves on the Board of Directors of The Pioneer Network.