When you have senior parents who need increasing support, empathy is critical. You try hard, and not always with success, to understand what they are experiencing. That’s called empathy.
The concept of empathy has received a bit of a bad rap the past year or two with politicians actually taking the time to deliver statements against looking at the world through an empathic lens (I could write an entire post just on these tactless quotes). During some U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for judges questions on empathy played a central, and I think somewhat silly, role. I like the outlook of the late Senator J. William Fulbright, who originated the idea of Fulbright scholars. Senator Fulbright wrote:
There are many respects in which America, if it can bring itself to act with the magnanimity and the empathy appropriate to its size and power, can be an intelligent example to the world.
When people negatively bat around the idea of empathy, I can only assume that they have lived a rather insular lives — free from very sick children, spouses with frightening diseases, senior parents who have just suffered a stroke, or a next door neighbor’s devastating accident. Moreover, maybe they are just too busy to experience empathy for senior parents or grandparents who, after retiring from successful and respected professional careers, find that they are rarely taken seriously and often spoken to like children. Certainly everyone who has been through these situations, and most of us have been through a least a couple of them, understands what empathy means.
I recently read a series of columns by Peter B. Bach, M.D., on the New York Times Well blog. Dr. Bach describes his wife’s cancer diagnosis and treatment as well as how it affected his family and his outlook as a physician. It sounds like Dr. Bach is a physician that any person would want, and it’s obvious from the beginning that he felt empathy for his patients. However, by the end of the series, it’s also clear that he more deeply understands the importance of letting his patients know how he is attempting to look through their prism. That’s empathy.
In the final column of his series, describing his return to work after his wife, Ruth’s diagnosis, Dr. Bach writes:
I wanted to make sure that the doctors in training, and the medical students who followed us, saw a person as well as a patient. I wanted them to see that the patient — along with the spouse holding that patient’s hand, and the family members gathered around — had only just crossed the line from the land of the healthy to the land of the sick.
I was not imparting a profound insight or seeking to do something novel or unusual. I was just following through on the most basic elements of being a doctor.
But I did change one small part of my routine, so small I doubt my trainees even noticed. Sometimes going into a patient’s room, I would position myself to face the other doctors. I’d ask to sit on the bed beside the patient, or walk around it to the other side.
If you have even been to the emergency room or hospital, especially with a senior parent who is not that sick but treated as if old age is a terrible illness, you know how important it is for the people around you to feel empathy.
Dr. Bach writes, “I’d always viewed patients as visitor in our hospital. But after a year of being on the other side of the desk, I’ve realized that we are the ones who are visitors in their lives.”
Read the entire set of columns by Peter Bach, M.D.
Dr. Bach’s Well Columns
- When the Doctor’s Wife Has Cancer, February 21, 2011
- The Doctor Who Knew Too Much, March 1, 2011
- The Doctor’s Wife in the Chemo Chair, March 8, 2011
- The Blind Luck of the Cancer Trials, March 15, 2011
- After the Diagnosis, Wishing for a Magic Number, March 21, 2011
- Hit by the Reality of Cancer Treatment, March 29, 2011
- Back to Work and Life With a Fresh Perspective, April 4, 2011