Empathy is trending. The word itself, coined by psychologists barely a century ago, has steadily increased in usage ever since. In 2017, it became one of the internet’s most searched words, according to Merriam-Webster.com.
It’s fair to ask, though: Are we any closer to actually instilling empathy, for all of our interest in it?
This is more than an academic question. Lack of empathy can be costly, such as failing to recognize the symptoms of an ailment when it is early and treatable. The ability to increase empathy, meanwhile—or at least to attune ourselves more sensitively to the signs of pain—could theoretically enable the reduction of greater pain down the road.
A few years ago, the insurance company Genworth began experimenting with empathy training for its claims and customer service representatives. The goal was to deepen the rapport with claimants and policyholders reaching out to the company during moments of need and distress.
Some of the training was decidedly low-tech, such as inserting popcorn kernels in the trainees’ shoes to simulate the aches and throbs of neuropathy. “After walking around like that for 10 minutes, when you hear people talking about pain in their feet, it’s an ‘aha moment,’” says Saunders.
It was an “aha” moment for the company at large, too. The success of the training inspired the creation of the R70i Aging Experience and the Genworth Empathy Lab, a series of experiences designed to simulate some of the ailments that many face as they age. Using advanced technology such as virtual environments and wearable robotics, as well as low-tech DIY experiences like the popcorn kernels, users were stimulated to feel the daily impact of such impairments. They were also prompted to imagine how their lives might change if faced with the impairment of an elderly family member. Aging involves lifestyle changes, after all—and while some of those changes may be small, such as decluttering drawers, others can be more dramatic, requiring professional nursing or a move to a facility. When people get a glimpse of such a future—indeed, a visceral and emotionally intense preview—it can trigger immediate action, such as research into funding options for additional care down the line.
For the elderly, empathy is paramount because aging could mean physical decline accompanied by pain, whether nagging or severe. Some of the most common diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes, cancer, and neurological ailments like Parkinson’s, can be ameliorated or arrested through early detection—if caretakers are aware of symptoms when they first arise.
Last November, for instance, Genworth held a pop-up event in New York, as part of “Aging Up,” a conference organized by The Atlantic on the challenges of planning for the long term in an era of increased longevity. There, visitors could test their knowledge on caregiving, calculate the eye-popping costs of long-term care in regions across the United States, watch a video scene that mimics varying levels of cataracts or glaucoma, and try on a virtual-reality headset, which was developed by outside partner Embodied Labs.
The experiences are, not surprisingly, vivid and transformative. The VR headset, one of the Empathy Lab’s latest offerings, simulates various events related to aging or illness: suffering from a condition such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, losing one’s vision or hearing, or receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis. It can capture with harrowing immediacy the fractured visual and auditory perspective of someone with severe cognitive limitations. It can make the act of staying upright in a bathtub seem as challenging as walking on ice or the reality of tracking a routine conversation feel like an unpleasant hallucination.
Genworth created an earlier version of the technology that involved more than a headset. The R70i Aging Experience Suit, which the company debuted in 2015, featured a wearable robotic exoskeleton that, instead of giving wearers enhanced abilities, immersed them in the sensations of old age—limited vision, spotty hearing, and encumbered movement and speech. These are the types of sensations that seem as alien as science fiction (and as uncomfortable as wearing a suit of armor) to someone still in the flush of youth, but which seven out of 10 people over the age of 65 may eventually encounter. 1
The headset extends the experience into the realm of cognitive disability, perhaps the most unpleasant and difficult-to-imagine malady of growing old. The Embodied Labs VR-enabled immersive learning system is designed to be used by hospice workers, emergency responders, and caregivers.
The experience provided by the headset can be distressing. “People think Alzheimer’s is just about memory, but it has physical effects as well,” says Carrie Shaw, the CEO of Embodied Labs, which designed the experience. “People like to talk about empathy, but it’s hard to turn it into action.”
The hope is that such experiences will lead to not just increased awareness but also a change in behavior. After experiencing the perception of an Alzheimer’s patient or someone with Lewy body dementia, many needed a moment to recover. “It’s emotional,” says Shaw. “The headset opens up deep conversations and gives people a new vocabulary.”
Such experiences can hopefully trigger the kind of rigorous, searching dialogue on whether the pain and suffering of those unable to be heard is getting the attention—and empathy—they deserve.
12019 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, longtermcare.acl.gov.