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Clinical Empathy: A Key Tool for Client Care

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In nearly every caregiving survey, stress bubbles to the top of concerns for family caregivers. Caregivers describe their feelings using words like despair and depression. They mourn the loss of their old life, before caring for a senior loved one started to consume their days and nights.

Aging can cause a great deal of stress in seniors, as well. Physical impairments, cognitive deficits and serious illnesses like cancer can bring on feelings of anger and grief in even the most stoic person.

As a senior caregiving professional, you may be aware of the physiological effects of chronic stress. Long-term stress has been linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. For family caregivers, chronic stress can actually be lethal. The study “Caregiving as a Risk Factor for Mortality” by Richard Schutz and Scott Beach noted “participants who were providing care and experiencing caregiver strain had mortality risks that were 63% higher than noncaregiving controls.”

You can help these stressed out seniors and caregivers by practicing clinical empathy. Studies show that professionals who learn how to be empathetic can influence a senior’s or caregiver’s neurological and physiological states—including reducing stress.

What Is Clinical Empathy?

According to researcher Jodi Halpern, MD, “empathy is a mode of understanding that specifically involves emotional resonance.” In other words, empathy requires a willingness to try to understand what another person is feeling.

In a professional setting, empathy involves using communication skills to connect with your client’s emotions. Empathy can be somewhat intimidating for caregiving professionals because it requires examining your own feelings and expressing them to foster a bond with the client. It’s worth noting empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy aligns with pity or feeling sorry for the person, while empathy aligns with emotional connectivity and understanding.

How Can I Practice Clinical Empathy with Seniors and Caregivers?

Many interpersonal communication experts have developed frameworks for interacting empathetically with clients. These approaches often are tied to helpful mnemonics like “NURSE” (Name-Understand-Respect-Support-Explore) and “CLASS” (Context-Listening Skills-Acknowledgement-Strategy-Summary). All of these approaches offer practical suggestions for putting clinical empathy in practice. Here are a few empathy techniques to try:

  • Be mindful of your body language. If your client is seated, you should sit down as well. Get face-to-face. Don’t sit too far away. Maintain an ‘open’ body posture.
  • Make eye contact. As you invite your client to express her feelings, make and maintain eye contact. This helps convey attentiveness.
  • Maintain a concerned facial expression. Try to avoid appearing detached.
  • Don’t be afraid to touch. You can convey empathy and understanding through laying your hand on your client’s forearm or shoulder.
  • Lower your vocal register. Stress often causes a person’s pitch to rise. Strive for a calm, soothing tone.
  • Observe the other person’s body language and facial expression. To fully practice empathy, don’t rely solely on what a person is saying. ‘Read’ their entire message by tuning in to their body language.
  • Verbalize your understanding of their emotions. Identify and label the underlying emotions you hear and see expressed. Use phrases like “that sounds very distressing,” “you look sad when you say that” or “many people would feel angry in that situation.”
  • Relate your own emotions. After acknowledging the other person’s feelings, you may express your own emotions. You can say things like “when something similar happened to me one time, I felt incredibly frustrated” or “it grieves me, too, to see Jim declining like this.”
  • Do not counter an emotion with a fact. If a person says, “I feel scared about what the future holds,” do not say, “Well, only about one in ten seniors actually die from this disease.” Instead, simply acknowledge the person’s fear with a statement such as, “I would probably feel scared, too, if this were my mother.”
  • Offer to help with the emotional distress. Try to identify some ways in which you can help alleviate your client’s stress. Note this is different from addressing the underlying medical condition. Don’t say, “Rest assured we will do everything we can to get this diabetes under control.” Instead say, “As you said, diabetes can be very scary. Would it help to sit down with a diabetes educator to learn more about the disease?”

Clinical Empathy Can Improve the Care Experience for Everyone

When you practice clinical empathy, you offer your clients a holistic experience that includes caring for their emotions. Studies link high clinical empathy with improved patient satisfaction scores, and care providers also report feelings of greater satisfaction. Clearly clinical empathy is an important skill to add to your caregiving toolkit.

Last revised: October 1, 2015

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. November 2, 2015 at 7:43 pm | Posted by Jo Daniels

    My mother who is 91 yrs oldis in a facility in our town. I have delt with her dementia for 10yrs. She is still reading and even though she is hard of hearing, she still communicates in a somewhat "normal way" I love every day thatI see her smile and know who I am. She doesn't know my brother but is very nice to him. My job now is as a personal assistant to an SBI agent and take care of her mother who is in the later stages of dementia. All the information I can share with there family is appreciated.I was the Chair Person for the North Carolina Alzheimer's Association "Memory Walk" that included 4 counties for 2 yrs. The NC Alzheimer's Association was my life saver when my Mom was diagnosed with Dementia-Alzheimer's .


  2. October 30, 2015 at 10:40 pm | Posted by Patti Bunston

    Two things come to mind here. 1. Don't just listen but actually " hear " what the client is telling you. 2 Client's may open up a lot easier to their CAREGiver and share issues that they feel they are unable to share with their own family. Absorb what they are saying, validate their feelings and a bit later gently talk to them about it again and see if they could possibly share with their family members yet. If they can't then respect that confidence - you only have to do something with the knowledge if they are a danger to themselves or others. Personally I would rather have my Mother share her anxieties with someone else than me (if she is till unable to, for whatever reason) than for her to keep maybe something painful inside and not get it out in the open for discussion.


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