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Phyllis McCormack was a nurse who worked in a hospital in Scotland during the 1960s. She knew the importance of empathy in caregiving and so was inspired to write a poem about it for her hospital’s newsletter. The poem she first called “Look Closer” is known today under the title of “Crabbit Old Woman.”

Because Phyllis originally did not claim authorship of the poem for fear of offending her colleagues, urban legend has credited it to an old women who died in a nursing home when a handwritten version was discovered in her belongings. A poignant punctuation to the end of the old woman’s unhappy life in a nursing home. Yes, this story happens again and again in nursing homes everywhere because not all caregivers have empathy for their residents.

Today’s healthcare providers, including nursing homes are under constant pressure to cut costs and comply with a mountain of record keeping regulations while at the same time providing safe, comfortable and competent care to their patients/residents. It is not an easy thing to do, and stress from this dynamic potentially pervades every aspect of caregiving.

This is particularly true in the nursing home setting where the majority of people receiving care are elderly and require 24-hour attention.

In the words of the Crabbit Old Woman, “What do you see, nurse. What do you see? What are you thinking when you look at me?”

It is no surprise that in the high-stress nursing home work environment some caregivers go about their business (busy-ness) as they do their jobs, but never really “see” the people they take care of. Oh, these caregivers will notice things that may either amuse or annoy them while giving care, but what these caregivers really need to do is to try to see their residents as they see themselves. This is empathy.

“Open your eyes, nurse. You’re looking at me,” says the Crabbit Old Woman. The empathetic caregiver “sees” her residents differently and understands the losses a nursing home resident has experienced. At a minimum this person they are taking care of has been forced to release the roles they played in their former, younger, lives. Roles such as soccer mom, wife or husband, office worker, church volunteer, homemaker, all have disappeared. Their children have grown up, no longer needing them and the years have robbed them of their independence. And now that they can’t take care of themselves any longer, they find themselves living in a place where others must take care of them. They were once the parent but are now much like a child.

Many people living in nursing homes must feel like the Crabbit Old Woman, “Grace and vigor depart, there is now a stone where I once had a heart,” according to the poem. The empathetic caregiver will feel the pain of their residents, but won’t take the pain for their own. Instead, the empathetic caregiver will treat their elderly charges with dignity and honor, granting wishes to the extent that they are able, while fostering their resident’s independence. Empathetic caregiving immeasurably improves the nursing home resident’s quality of life.

“Inside this old carcass, a young girl still dwells.” The empathetic caregiver knows that inside every one of their residents dwells the heart of a young person. The empathetic caregiver plays to the strengths of a their residents. The empathetic caregiver is a good listener, is patient and kind. The empathetic caregiver is somehow able to see themselves in every Crabbit Old Woman (or Man) receiving their care, and can translate that into a healthy experience for their residents and a rewarding experience for themselves.

If you would like to read the poem “Crabbit Old Woman” click here.

Bo Ramsey is a CNA Instructor at Express Training Services, LLC at the Destin Training Center. ETS is home based in Gainesville, Florida and has several other training centers in Florida that offer fast-track instruction for certification in many healthcare occupations. For more information call 866-346-0660 or go to expresstrainingservices.com

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