Most people in training to become certified nurses’ assistants are young, healthy and strong, and that is good for the physical job you have set out to do. One drawback of being young and strong is that you might have difficulty having empathy for older, more fragile people.

Empathy means being able to put yourself in the place of someone else and understand how he or she must feel. When a friend goes through a divorce or loses a family member we imagine ourselves in the same situation and for a moment we feel the sadness that our friend must feel. This is what good certified nurses’ assistants do every day. Imagine how you would feel if you were unwell and had to have assistance getting out of bed or walking down the hall. Some of the residents might have helped win World War II and were in the peak of physical condition at that time. Most of them worked, raised families, and looked after spouses when they became ill. Now aging and disease have made them unable to do what they used to. How would you feel in those circumstances? Angry? Frustrated? Depressed? Coping well? Accepting? Residents have all different personalities and abilities to handle difficulties, just as younger people do, and you will find pleasant residents, unpleasant residents, those who cooperate with getting care and those who resent your taking care of them. With empathy you can understand what they have been through and what they are going through and not judge how they are dealing with it.

In her play Raisin in the Sun Lorraine Hansberry writes says not to judge someone until you know what mountains and valleys he or she has gone through. If you have the time (a big if) sitting down and chatting with residents can help you to build empathy. Each resident has a story to tell, with a childhood spent playing and learning, a young adulthood dating and starting a family, a middle age working and raising that family, and retirement. If you find out more about the person, the chances are that you will find something in common. You both went to school. Perhaps you both had pets, or both were allergic and could not have pets. Summer vacations? Relating to your parents and siblings, training for a career? Finding someone to start a family with? Those are all things you might have in common.

Of course, not all residents are able to communicate. That does not mean that they are necessarily unable to hear or feel. Imagine being completely at the mercy of other people and not being able to have any say-so about what is going on around you or what is done for you. How would you feel? Try sitting or lying in one place without moving. Don’t turn over in bed. Don’t shift around in your chair. Don’t move your arms, legs, hands, fingers, or even your head. See how long you can stay in that position without becoming uncomfortable. That is how the resident feels waiting for you to come and move him. Now watch the clock. How long is it before you begin to feel uncomfortable? Now you can have empathy for the resident who is no longer able to move without help and is not able to ask for help.

When you are tired from hurrying up and down the halls serving trays and answering call bells, do you ever wonder why some residents cannot sit still and keep pacing the halls? Sit in your room for an entire day. Do not go out for meals or to get the newspaper, or even to take a shower. How many hours will it be before you are sick and tired of your bedroom? Pretend you cannot drive a car and cannot leave the house. How do you feel? Like sitting in your room all day? Or at least walking around the house if that is all you are able to do? Now you have some idea of how agitated residents feel.

Can you think of other difficulties residents face? Discuss the topic with other students and plan exercises that will put you in the position of the resident. Then you will develop empathy.


Q.  What is empathy?

A.  Empathy is when an individual is able to put themselves “in someone else’s shoes” by thinking about how a person thinks and feels about the current situation they are in.  When a person is empathetic towards another individual, they have a deep understanding of the person’s feelings and emotions regarding a situation.  Having empathy is about more than being sympathetic and feeling bad about a person’s situation, it is a matter of really being able to feel the emotions that person is feeling.

Explanation:  A nursing assistant will interact with patients who are afraid, lonely, wanting to go home, angry, etc.  When a nursing assistant is empathetic, they are able to imagine how that person is feeling in their current circumstances.  For instance, the CNA can clearly imagine the emotions they would feel if they were ill and had to be away from their home and loved ones.  If that patient is acting withdrawn or even acting angry, the CNA is able to understand why they are feeling that way.

Q.  True or False:  Empathy is an important characteristic of a good nursing assistant?

A.  True:  In order to be a truly effective nursing assistant, an individual should be a very empathetic person.  If an individual is not an overly empathetic person, a job as a CNA might not be a good choice for this person.

Explanation; Showing empathy to an individual is a characteristic when you can truly put yourself in someone else’s shows and have a good ability to understand how that person feels.  Many patients in a healthcare setting-whether there short-term or long-term, are frightened, sad and/or homesick.  A range of other emotions can be experienced too.  A patient can feel more at ease and have a more positive attitude for recovery if they are surrounded by empathetic people, and particularly nurses assistants since they often spend the most time with patients.

Q.  Is empathy something that can be taught to someone?

A.  Not everyone is able to be an overly empathetic person.  There are some people who are able to show farm more empathy than others.  As such, it is not something that can be taught.  There are, however, some things people can do to further develop their ability to empathize with others.

Explanation:  It is possible to further develop empathy.  You can have a better understanding of what people are going through if you pay close attention to what they say in both their verbal and non-verbal communication.  You can talk to a person and really listen to what they have to say.  Get to know what a patient is going through.  Let them tell you about their lives; both past and present if they wish.  Knowing a patient well will go a long way in helping you to be empathetic.

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