In schools of nursing, empathy is stressed, as opposed to sympathy. Nursing students are told sympathy is when you "feel sorry for someone;" whereas empathy is when you "feel for someone." It is not possible to feel exactly the way someone else does, but empathy is a process, a striving, toward understanding how another person feels. As nurses, the empathie process helps us to be sensitive to another person's needs. It helps us provide better nursing care.
Having had similar experiences is often helpful in the empathy process, although not absolutely necessary. To promote empathy in nursing education, role playing and training programs have been introduced in the curriculum. Empathy can have both a physiological and cognitive component. One example of the way empathy might manifest itself physiologically is through an expectant father's labor pains. In the cognitive realm, empathy is perspective taking - taking someone else's point of view. The following description of what I call the Geriatric Experience was an exercise in empathy - one that influenced my lifetime work with older adults.
I was in my 20s, young and maybe somewhat naive at the time. I was undergoing perhaps the most stressful period of my life. I was a mother of two healthy, active children; both younger than age 4. 1 was a part-time community health nursing clinical instructor. I originally worked 3 clinical days every other week, stretched over a 14-week semester. I decided, on a trial basis, to condense each clinical rotation to 3 days weekly for 7 straight weeks. I was teaching every week for 7 weeks in a row. In addition, I was commuting 150 miles each way, once a week, taking an advanced level course.
As I mentioned, it was a most stressful time in my life. To top it off, my family and I had decided on an international move that was to take place at the end of the semester. This meant selling the house and packing up a household. No easy feat. It was no wonder that at the beginning of the 7-week clinical rotation I came down with, I thought, a head cold. As frequently cited in the popular media, stress makes one's immune system more prone to colds and flu. Apparently, it wasn't a mere head cold, or even just an upper respiratory infection. Besides a runny nose and runny eyes, I had a blocked eustachian tube, congestion in my head and chest, and a constant sinus headache. It was worse in the morning when I woke up. It improved somewhat during the day and got worse again at night. I was functioning at a low level and living on antihistamines, acetaminophen, aspirin, vitamins, and anything else I thought would make me feel better.
Very little was penetrating - I felt as if I were an old person. With aging, all senses gradually lose their acuity, albeit at different rates with allowances for individual differences. Sensory decline with the aging process (as well as possible effects from various medications, disease processes, and smoking) results in a substantial reduction of environmental impressions. Although in the aging process, sensorial changes are not abrupt, I felt the effects on all of my senses within a short time. My vision was poorer and my eyes were constantly running. IfI wore my contact lenses, my eyes were glazed over and I couldn't focus well. If I wore my glasses, my vision was far less than acute. My night vision was adversely affected, too, which restricted night driving. Because of the congestion in my head, every time I swallowed (which was in itself uncomfortable) it felt as if the ocean was in my head and my hearing was impaired. This affected my ability to concentrate. With a greatly reduced ability to taste or smell anything, my appetite decreased. My teeth and gums ached from the sinus condition, which affected my chewing. I resorted to soft foods, which were unattractive, tastleless, textureless, and virtually unpalatable. This made eating less desirable.
I was undergoing the Geriatric Experience, which also encompassed the socialization and communication realm. I experienced a reduced attention span and decreased alertness, which impacted my ability to follow conversations. This led to decreased social interactions. I essentially withdrew from many activities. If I was in a social setting, I let the conversations surround me without interacting or I avoided them altogether, giving me a sense of aloneness and sensory deprivation.
Because of this experience, I have the ability to empathize with the older adults with whom I work on a daily basis. I can better understand them and relate to them. 1 "lived" the Geriatric Experience, which in turn, makes them feel more comfortable with me. And now that I am approaching my middle years, I can appreciate the Geriatric Experience even more, because it is certainly more relevant to my life.
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