Why Is There A Lack Of Empathy In People With Dementia?

Researchers from Neuroscience Research Australia conducted a study in 2016 that evaluated the level of cognitive empathy in people with Alzheimer’s. The study included people with the disease, healthy people and people with the behavioral-variant of frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD). It has been noted that people with bvFTD undergo a startling change in personality marked by a lack of empathy and dulled emotions, meeting attempts at affection with confusion.

Researchers found that both the group with Alzheimer’s and the group with bvFTD had a reduced level of empathy, but that the participants with bvFTD were significantly more impaired when it came to identifying with the emotions and experiences of others.

Empathy in a nutshell

Have You Heard of The Validation Method?

Validation theory emphasizes empathy and listening. It views Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients as unique and worthwhile and as being in the final stages of life. They’re trying to resolve unfinished business so they can die in peace. The caregiver’s job is to offer these individuals a means for expression, verbally or nonverbally.

The Validation method was developed from the experiences of Naomi Feil, a social worker for the elderly who started her career in the 1960s. She grew dissatisfied with common practices in dealing with severely disoriented older adults.

As ALZWellCaregiverSupport explains, validation is about the older person’s needs. Instead of ignoring or stopping what might be viewed as irrational or illogical behavior, validation offers alternatives. It focuses on the objective here and now and doesn’t ask why. Here are a few examples:

1. The Physician

In one scenario, she describes how a physician might respond to an elderly woman who’s convinced he’s her husband. She asks him to take her home.

Rather than telling her she’s wrong or prescribing medication to reduce anxiety, Validation recommends that the physician match her emotions with empathic statements. These include: “You miss him,” “You were close,” “You want to be back in your house. What would you do there?”

2. The Caregiver

Another example poses an adult child helping a mother who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The mother is convinced someone is throwing away her most precious belongings, including photo albums and scrapbooks. But the mother’s actually hiding these things.

Instead of arguing with the mother, the daughter could rephrase the situation, helping her mother reminisce about her youth in a positive light: “Your wedding ring is gone. You think I’ve stolen it?,” “It was a beautiful ring,” “How did you and Dad meet?”

Have You Heard of Empathic Curiousity?

Social relationships are extremely important for people living with dementia. Like all of us, they want to feel connected to their friends, families, the communities they come from and the places in which they live. These connections play an important role in helping them to retain their sense of identity and personal wellbeing (Department of Health, 2009; Aked et al, 2008).

When we respond to a person with dementia with sensitivity and understanding, we are displaying empathy (Halpern, 2001), but empathic curiosity requires more than this. To adopt an empathic and curious stance, we have to try to actively tune into the experiences of people with dementia as they are experiencing them in the here and now (McEvoy and Plant, 2014).

Empathic curiosity requires two things from us:

  • To engage in empathic listening;
  • To maintain a curious attitude (particularly in regard to non-verbal cues and behaviours).