Tips for using empathy in home care communications

Working in home care must be difficult. But the reality is, providing care at home is becoming the norm, considering the large number of people who prefer domiciliary care as opposed to institutionalization (if possible). And who wouldn’t? Because home care is becoming an increasing societal demand, I started asking people what are their major challenges or what are their struggles in working in home care. And luckily I had quite a response (check out my LinkedIn discussions in Domiciliary Care and Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy).

So, for the past few weeks, I have been gathering data on home care challenges from Ireland and the UK, from social media channels and small interviews with carers and managers who work in domiciliary care. It seems like one of the major problem that home care managers face is retaining good carers, while the thing that carers consider difficult is finding a personality fit between them and their client or having misunderstandings with the client’s family.

These two aspects got me thinking. Why are carers hard to retain or find it difficult to get along with their clients or other carers sometimes, as they emphasized (besides the obvious low wages, legislative issues etc)? Simplified, the question “Why do people in general have communication problems?” directed me towards a straightforward answer: have patience and be empathetic!

Therefore, I wrote down some tips on using empathy in home care communication.


Tips on using empathy in home care communication


Take the physician-patient empathic communication example

Many studies encourage physicians or nurses to use empathic communication when talking to patients. I believe same principles can be applied to home care. Using tips on how to engage in an empathetic way with others is useful for all stakeholders in home care, either for a manager who deals with difficult clients or hard to retain employees, or for a carer or a nurse having misunderstandings with a client or a client’s family.


Make the difference between detached concern and empathy

When showing empathy, you are trying to imagine how the other person feels and resonate with his/hers feelings; while detached concern refers to the fact that you know the client is in a certain state, but you are not emotionally attuned to his or her state.

Example: A client is completely immobilised, confined to bed and being in pain, he talks in a soft voice. You tend to talk back to him in the same manner, but somehow you see he or she is not responding to your communication style in a positive way. This might happen because the person might feel ashamed of his loss of independence and so forth.

What you can do: If you see the client is nervous, or seems hindered by your way of talking to him, you can ask directly and in an assertive way what is bothering him in the way he is treated? Show concern while attuning to his emotions.


Learn to trust your own emotional cues when dealing with people with disabilities

If you feel anxiety or shame coming from them, pause, and shortly summarise what they say in order to reinforce the fact that you are listening to them. While showing empathy for someone, you non-verbally show signs of empathy (you redirect your body position towards the one you are talking to) and involuntary start resonating with his or hers emotional state.

Example: “ So from what I understand, you are feeling upset because…”


Use associative reasoning

Ideas and words that people sometimes say are linked to affective, sensory or experiential similarities. You have to pay attention to the words people use and the emotional tone they carry. Patients’ emotions or non-verbal communication (a gesture, an evasive gaze) can help you guide your attention to the person’s state. You will then know when to ask something, remain silent, or when to repeat important words.


Why is empathy important in home care?

  • Empathy facilitates trust and disclosure. If older people, for example, can see that carers resonate with their emotions and their health situation, a strong relationship can be build. Disclosure also helps in consolidating that relationship.
  • Studies on physician-patient communication and clinical empathy, tell us that:
    • patients can sense whether doctors are emotionally attuned, and so will home care clients;
    • usually doctors, caregivers in this case, are more trusted by clients if the carers respond to anxiety with own responsive worry. Trust can lead to better treatment adherence (example: you can make sure the clients take their medications).
  • Empathy can make your work feel more meaningful and satisfying. Creating a strong empathic relationship between carer and family member or client can, in my opinion, help in making the carers’ job more meaningful and also can contribute to a trusted relationship with the families.

In conclusion, encouraging empathy in home care can be fruitful for all stakeholders.

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