Teaching empathy in Community Services Works

When developing learning and assessment resources – particularly for the disability and aged care sector – it’s vital that students develop an empathetic understanding of the people they’ll work with each day. Our approach to CHC learning resources at RTO Works revolves around the human element – educating students that offering “support” also means being compassionate, listening and applying sensitivity to the needs of those in your care.

For our Community Services Works qualifications, we include the letter below from an Australian who needs care. This letter helps students think outside of a “practical” headspace, to get a real understanding of what elderly Australians or those living with disabilities want and need.

The writer talks about their loss of independence and how it affects them each day. They also discuss the qualities that they value in their support, so that students can get a first-hand account of what makes a carer truly great.

Hello all,

I’m writing this first and foremost from my personal perspective. It’s not intended to be a one size fits all thing, but that’s a lead in to one of the biggest points to be aware of. In this industry you are entering into the private and personal space of an individual that is for the most part dealing with an extremely complex set of challenges every moment of every day. Your role in this is to be a helping hand when needed, how you go about that will vary greatly with every person you come across.

I’ll give you a brief history of my previous life before my injury to paint a picture of the person I was. From a young age I was always creative using my hands, I was not academic at all. There wasn’t much I couldn’t turn my hand to. This built a very self-reliant, self-sufficient individual. Then suddenly losing all that, laying on the ground unable to move; nothing, I mean absolutely nothing can prepare a person for that. It changes everything about your life and who you thought you were.

It’s been 5 years since that accident, there’s not a day or hour that goes by that I’m not reminded of my limitations, the insurmountable grief and loss of that independence doesn’t go away, it’s just something I deal with the best I can. This is NOT something fixable no matter how much therapy, distractions, help, sympathy, support etc can fix. So please don’t try to make it go away or fix it, this is not your role. For me, a carer is someone who is available for me to help with tasks that I cannot do for myself. That’s it in a nutshell.

In amongst all the grief and sadness there is a whole load of other emotions and feelings that ensue; fear, vulnerability, shame, anxiety, frustration, chronic pain.

I’ll explain how these words and feelings relate to me:

  • Fear: that I can’t defend myself, or someone will do something I cannot control, I can’t jump up and respond or run away from dangerous situations, or protect my family, and fear of the future relating to my medical condition.
  • Vulnerability: similar to fear but more regular in day-to-day tasks (in the hands of others) particularly when being driven in a vehicle.
  • Shame: because I did this to myself and now other people are cleaning up my mess. The loss of bodily functions brings one to an infantile memory, a difficult one to move through.
  • Anxiety: watching others do things that I would have done easily in the past, food preparation triggers this, it’s good to confirm every process when preparing food.
  • Frustration: having to compromise with the way things get done, and watching others do it and not being able to do it myself, or simply frustrated because I can’t do it.
  • Pain: living with chronic pain can dampen your mood to say the least, becoming irritable and trying to mask that or regulate oneself with others around.

Here’s a list a few things that I personally don’t like and another list of things that I find challenging:

  • Excessive checking in: ‘Are you ok? Can I get you anything? Are you sure you don’t need anything, I’m here if you need anything.’ This is irritating and it reminds me even more of my need for help (I’ll ask).
  • The cleaner: ‘I thought I’d clean your living room and bookshelves and work desk.’
  • The chatterer: knowing and remembering there are two people in the conversation (excessive talk can be nerves often associated with fear or being uncomfortable with silence).
  • The fixer: ‘Have you tried this before? My friend or other client uses it, it’s great you should try it, you need to go out more, have you thought of doing a course?’

The qualities I like in a carer:

  • A quiet self-confidence: it’s refreshing to feel you’re in good hands, a ‘fake it till you make it’ approach can work in this instance too.
  • Humility: it’s good to remember I have been doing this for 5 years, I generally know what’s best for me. It’s best to check in ‘would you care to hear my point of view?’
  • Empathetic: the less words the better for me, a soft hand on the shoulder in tough times is often enough.
  • Professionalism: it doesn’t take much in a home setting for the lines to blur, I’m not looking for a friend, however this may happen naturally in time, avoid bringing personal issues or problems or other client’s problems into work.
  • Tuning into moods: knowing when I’m needing space or if I’m frustrated or angry it’s mine to deal with. Avoid trying to ‘cheer me up’ or take it personally, it’s not usually about you.
  • Trustworthy and able to follow routine: a large part of this job is routine, it’s important to me as it takes the pressure off to have to check over basic day-to-day procedures and not have to micromanage a forgetful person. There are some very important procedures that if not done could have dangerous consequences.
  • It’s important to remember one’s physical autonomy is extremely compromised but is now replaced by language. Your role is to listen to the words and ‘requests’ – ‘Could you please pick up my phone?’, ‘Could you help me tidy up my living room, bookshelf and my work desk?’
  • I may be struggling to reach something on the table or pick something up using an aid of some sort. Until I’ve asked for help it’s important not to intervene as I may want to try to challenge myself, this can be difficult for some people as they may be compelled to jump in and help.

A summary: I hope this is helpful to anyone in the industry or looking to get into it. Basically a carer is to be my arms and legs when needed. I’m always very grateful for the help I receive. I do struggle to show that appreciation, I think it’s tied up around pride and shame of needing so much help and the mundane regular day-in-day-out routine.

Thanks for reading

Sincerely, Anonymous