As I’m closing the front door I try to retrace the steps of my morning routine, to make sure I did everything and I have what I need for the day. I walk through my yard and my eyes wander on the wheat field in front of my house, exuding a sense of serenity while the warmth of the sun alarmingly suggests it will be another hot, sultry day. I get in the car and drive to work.
I get to the nursing home, put my scrubs on, and, as I walk through the corridor leading to the Blue ward, see Ms. C. walking around. As soon as she recognizes me, she heads towards me and asks, in a trembling voice and labored breath: «Is the doctor in this morning?». She looks me in the eyes like she’s waiting for a prophecy.
I imagine her day did not start well, I sense her need to let out some anxiety and I feel a sort of instinctive resistance that makes me physically take a small step back. However, I center myself, I readjust my feet to find my balance and decide to put that reluctance aside to make room for listening.
To think how many working days start like this for us caregivers, or worse! Our fast-paced working schedules and all the unwanted surprises we face every day can lead us to sacrifice the small moments when our elderly patients most need to be listened to.
I ask myself how, even in our most stressful times, we can remain good, attentive, and welcoming listeners.
My twenty-year working experience leads me to recognize the value in some techniques we can learn to practice “putting aside”, in some instances, whatever is crowding our thoughts. One example in the Validation® method is Centering, the first and fundamental skill. It means being able to open a respectful listening space for the other person to share their emotions without overwhelming us and it is, most of all, an act of will.
Every time I get ready to initiate empathic contact with a vulnerable elderly person, I ask myself: «Do I want to welcome this person right now?». If the answer is yes, wonderful and surprising things could happen for me and the person. Validation® workers experience this every day.
However, it must be acknowledged that sometimes, the cost of this process in energy is remarkable and we need to keep replenishing our energy to avoid being emotionally drained.
I’ll explain myself by going back to my conversation with Ms. C.:
«I can tell welcoming Ms. C. today was hard for me. Maybe that initial resistance was a defense mechanism. After all, I am going through an emotionally trying time and I did not sleep well last night».
It’s good that I’m aware of the connection between my ability to be empathetic towards the elderly person right now (or to be empathetic to anyone, really!) and my ability to be empathetic towards myself.
To quote American researcher Brené Brown: «We can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly» (from the Ted Talk “The power of vulnerability”, 2010, TEDxHouston).
I think this is a crucial step for all of us who have chosen a caregiving job: the process of putting our emotions aside, several times a day for several years, can be damaging if it means depriving those emotions of value.
It is essential that we get used to and learn to recognize the importance of going back to what we put aside and taking care of it, in the appropriate ways and contexts.
Empathy is an act of will to which we cannot be forced, by ourselves or others. If too many pressing matters are occupying my thoughts, it is natural to not be able to put my emotions aside and make space for the other person. At the same time, I cannot safely put my emotions aside without learning how to properly do it.
If in order to make space, I get used to denying a part of me, I am acting out of connection with others but not with myself: that is dangerous in the long run.
That is why I believe that respect for the emotional state of vulnerable elderly people and respect for the emotional well-being of those who take care of them are two inseparable acts of care in nursing homes.