Written by: Anne Marie Forgarty, RGN
Sensitivity Towards Geriatric Patients
As a healthcare worker, you’ll have a huge role in delivering high quality, safe patient care under an umbrella of trust, respect and empathy. To care for someone, you will have to know what their care needs and wants are. Sometimes those needs may not be so obvious and so you will need to understand the person and see their life from their perspective.
What are empathy and geriatric sensitivity?
Empathy is to understand how another person may be feeling, and what they may be thinking. It is to place yourself in their lives. Underpinning empathy comes from understanding, communication and care.
Demonstrate respect for others’ opinions or values. They will often be the opposite of your own, but there is no place for judgement in care.
To truly empathise with a person, we must not only try to understand them or their situation, but we should also respect their feelings, thoughts and situation. Be patient with them, this can be challenging with older people who might be slow to walk or take time to articulate their needs. It can test the healthcare workers’ patience in their busy workday, but it is a fundamental requirement to have patience and you’ll have more patience if you are empathetic. Having understanding and empathy for an elderly patient is a key skill when it comes to caring for an elderly person.
Developing empathy towards older patients is key for quality nursing care and healthcare in general. As the global ageing population increases, there is a true need for carers to better understand the needs of their ageing patients.
Why is geriatric sensitivity so important?
Perhaps the best way to understand the importance of empathy towards older patients is to look at an example.
EXAMPLE – Why won’t patient X try to mobilise? It is irritating. Patient X fell two years ago and developed a fear of the same thing happening, so she stays in bed when possible to avoid the risk of falling again.
Here the healthcare worker appears annoyed at the lack of motivation the patient shows. If they understood the patient’s fear of falling, then a program of counselling and/or behaviour therapy could be an option to reduce the patient’s fear, therefore allowing her to mobilise safely and without anxiety.
Similarly, healthcare workers may get impatient with a patient who won’t take their medications. But have they assessed the real reason- is there a fear of choking on tablets? Is the patient depressed and considering giving up? Are they distrusting the healthcare system and medicines? Have they a history of drug addiction and are therefore afraid to start medications that may end up addictive? There might be cultural, religious, spiritual, emotional or social reasons besides behavioural reasons for drug refusal, but unless you dig deep respectfully, then you may not understand why they are refusing their medication plan. Not everything is documented in the patient’s notes! What you need to develop is an understanding of potential reasons why a patient is acting a certain way and that’s not always easy.
What will support you in this understanding and lead to an empathetic approach is knowledge of the ageing process from a holistic view. Knowledge of the brain, body and mental health.
In a digital age where everything is fast-paced and involves technology, there needs to be a mix of the old with the new. Textbooks along with visual demos and subject matter experts can all be used as teaching tools to teach students sensitivity towards older patients.
First off however there needs to be a deeper understanding of what older patients need and want.
Engage in interaction and empathetic learning methods with students.
Research shows that interactive, hands-on learning aids are very effective, especially wearables and simulators. In fact, studies have found that 83% of participants in the simulation were able to empathise with life in old age extremely well and 95% had a better understanding of the physical conditions of ageing.
Wearable learning aids such as the RealCare Geriatric Simulator, the EASi Empathic Age Simulator and the Geriatric Sensory Impairment Kit allow users to experience geriatric problems such as, limited range of motion, reduced mobility, stooped posture, and joint stiffness, as well as visual impairments like cataracts and glaucoma.
Through simulation, students get to experience first-hand what it feels like to be older. The keyword here is “feels”, to really empathise with someone we first need to put ourselves in their shoes. To feel how they feel. Once we understand this, it becomes easier to empathise.
Ask the patients what they feel they need and want. Understand the journey of ageing and old age from a physically, socially, emotionally, financially and psychologically viewpoint.
It is important for health care providers and students to develop soft skills such as empathy and understanding of their patients’ needs, in order to deliver quality care. There is no better way to teach or learn empathy than to teach with interaction and simulation of a real experience.