Looking back, I can place the start of my personal journey towards empathy about a year ago, when I started working at a small local family-owned pharmacy. Being new to the industry, I found the majority of customers being elderly, requiring extra assistance and lots of patience to serve them. However, as a result of my recent empathy experiences I have a new found respect for their ability to overcome adversity on a daily basis. This is the story of my empathy adventure dealing with arthritis.
At the beginning, interacting with many elderly customers I would associate the usual stereotypes, such as frail elderly woman, struggling to write their signature, probably not mobile enough to walk up the road to pick up their medication. When we see people different to ourselves, viewing their adverse situation with sympathy, it’s all too easy to feel sorry for them, but is this sense of pity useful in understanding?
Reflecting on this, over time with increasingly personal interactions I started to grow friendships with some of the regular customers. Finding common ground was important, but challenging with out-dated (at least in my view) opinions towards the world. However, instead of focusing on differences I looked for similarities between us.
Being exposed to the details of how empathy works opened my eyes to ways I could deepen my connection to elderly people. I drew inspiration from Mrs Wishart, a pharmacy customer I have been fortunate to develop a great relationship with. During a recent chat, having not seen her for some weeks, I noticed she was looking more run down than usual. Asking about her wellbeing my enquiry triggered a deep conversation about her struggles with deteriorating arthritic condition, which even expanded into what matters most in life. It was a really open, authentic and inspiring discussion! Deepening our understanding of each other to this extent, I began to break stereotypes and assumptions of frail, lonely and bored elderly people. It turns out Mrs Wishart was looking tired because she was exhausted from hosting many visitors. Instead, she would love to write but didn’t have the energy due to a full calendar of commitments. Knowing this Mrs Wishart had exactly the opposite problem to the generalised stereotypes previously in my mind!
Like many of our elderly customers, Mrs Wishart has the degenerative health condition arthritis. The condition makes undertaking normal tasks more difficult and tiresome. Given our flourishing relationship I was driven to deepen my empathic understanding.
It wasn’t until I attempted a personal immersive experience of arthritis that I was able to properly appreciate the daily challenge. Learning about immersion as a method for developing empathy, I got an idea to simulate the experience of arthritis for myself from an industrial designer of the 1970s, Patricia Moore (see image right). As an industrial design student myself, I found this particularly inspiring. This story starts with her at a planning meeting asking if they could design the refrigerator door handle so that someone with Arthritis would find it easy to open. The response from the senior male colleagues was… “…we don’t design for those people”.
As personal protest her response was to dressed up as an elderly woman, conducting this empathy experiment in over a hundred American cities from 1979 to 1982. Patricia was in her late 20s.
To create my own immersion experience on arthritis I took the following steps. Firstly, I researched the symptoms of arthritis in the hands, which includes swollen, sore and stiff fingers. Then, I read various accounts written by people living with the condition. Before finally, I drew inspiration from engineered arthritic simulation gloves that are used by the product development industry to test usability for the elderly. From this I created my very own arthritis simulation (basic but effective!). See images below.
As a part of this empathy project, I went about a normal day, except that I did it with arthritic hands. It started at 8:30am in the morning, until evening. This included daily tasks such as, getting dressed, brushing my teeth, drying my hair, making and eating breakfast, and morning coffee. Then setting off for university class, driving to the station, catching the train, attending classes to finish and hand in an assessment, doing some coding and attempting to sketch a few ideas… Who would have thought it to be so restrictive, frustrating and tiring!
From the beginning, getting ready in the morning, I noticed my mind was always focused on finding new ways to place my hands to do things I normally do mindlessly. I usually find getting ready in the morning relaxing and a good way to kick off my productivity for the day. It took me a lot longer, and even when I was ready, I didn’t feel mentally prepared. When I got to class and tried to do some sketching I couldn’t write readable notes and my sketches ended up very abstract and child-like. Not being able to express what I was thinking on paper effectively was very frustrating. Thankfully I could remove the braces in the evening, what a relief! However, I can somewhat imagine what it must feel like to know an arthritic condition is permanent and likely to degenerate over time. It goes beyond frustration, into diminished personal freedoms and for creative people like me (and Mrs Wishart) a restrained expressive identity.
This immersion empathy experience has helped open up my mind and overcome stereotypes of the elderly. I have a greatly enhanced appreciation for the challenges associated with ageing, however sympathy (feeling sorry) is not what elderly people want. We should respect them for facing daily challenges, while being treated normally. What I have learnt here will help me approach all people with more confidence, without fear of offending. This is not the end of my empathy journey as I will go on to apply this thinking in my career, possibly as a service designer and just as a caring, empathic member of the community.
Written by Lauren Addison, student in Bachelor of Design in Integrated Product Design