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Turning Empathy Into Innovative Solutions

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Jun 23, 2020

People have started scouring the internet for virtual ways to connect with friends and loved ones. Netflix parties, Animal Crossing, and Zoom calls are all doing a lovely job at keeping us occupied, so it seems. But when days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, feelings of loneliness can begin to creep in. We start to miss visiting the trendiest restaurant spots with our friends, and attending those dreaded (but ultimately fun) family barbecues. 

If you have felt scared, isolated, or restricted during this quarantine, then I challenge you to explore those feelings and consider how they may allow you to better empathize with our aging population.

Loneliness and social isolation are prominent issues amongst older adults.1 Loneliness has been associated with a variety of physical and mental health outcomes, including depression, Alzheimer’s, and cancer mortality.2,3,4 Multiple studies have found that loneliness may increase the risk of premature mortality in the senior population.5,6,7 Suffice to say, loneliness and social isolation have a tremendous negative influence on the quality of life of seniors, which is only being further exacerbated by the current situation. We who are young can only imagine the devastating impact that the current pandemic has had on vulnerable individuals living in retirement and long-term care homes around the world. 

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Why do we need empathy now?

The current stigma against aging is prevalent in our society and has a negative impact on the physical and mental well-being of seniors. Older adults have been shown to internalize ageist stereotypes such as the inevitably of poor health, inactivity, and deteriorating cognitive abilities.8,9 This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that can result in reduced levels of engagement, memory loss, and poor health outcomes for an already vulnerable population.10

Ageism may result from viewing elderly persons as part of an out-group — i.e. a group that does not share the same beliefs, norms, or behaviours that we do, and is therefore unlike us.11 Research has shown that members of out-groups have difficulty soliciting feelings of empathy from in-group members. The implications of this aren’t trivial: Empathy is important because it can improve intergroup relations and result in helpful behaviors.12,13 Current events have the potential to elicit feelings of loneliness, uncertainty, and dejection in seniors and youth alike. Regardless of age, this unique experience of living through a global pandemic together has given us the opportunity to practice empathy. It is time we harness that and use it as a tool.

How can we use our empathy productively?

What we choose to do in order to combat social isolation in the senior population is up to us. Options include creating interventions, volunteering, and reaching out to senior members of your social circle. Most importantly, it is how we go about engaging in these activities that will determine their effectiveness. 

For example, creating an intervention without speaking to members of the population that you are attempting to help can prove futile. The intention is noble, but the execution can fall flat for multiple reasons. It may be that the intervention does not adapt to the user’s lifestyle, or that it addresses a problem that does not exist. This is why our ability to empathize is such an important step in the pursuit of becoming positive changemakers.

It is for this reason that empathy is a key tool that is consistently used in human-centered design.

An empathy-informed design process can result in products, interventions, and policy changes that are tailored to the needs of consumers. When done correctly, the results are highly favored by the recipient. Understanding needs is easier to accomplish when you have empathy for the individual that you are creating a product for. There are various ways that designers can gain empathy, such as ethnographic studies, empathic modeling, and mapping out user experiences.14 It allows them to see the world from the perspective of the user and create solutions that fit into their lives. 

Empathy for the elderly

Young people like us have no way of fully understanding what it is like to live in a retirement home or long-term care home during these unprecedented times. However, due to the impact of the pandemic on all of our lives, we can see a faint glimmer of what it can feel like to be lonely and isolated from friends, family and loved ones. 

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Personally, this makes me more inclined to understand the dispositions of seniors with whom, until now, I had difficulty relating to. We can use this as an opportunity to listen to the experiences of senior members of our society. Not only will this help us understand the perspective of the other party and put us in a better position to help them, but empathic conversations can also be extremely valuable and therapeutic in nature.15 

What else can be done

Another way that we can utilize our empathy is by volunteering. The benefits of volunteering are bi-directional — doing so can encourage a sense of community and belonging for the giver and the receiver. These are feelings that are extremely beneficial during a crisis like the one we are currently living in. It is understandable that many individuals may not want to volunteer in-person visits during the pandemic. Fortunately, online volunteering opportunities are available and still provide benefits in the form of improved psychological well-being and social connectedness.16,17

Finally, reaching out to friends and loved ones during times like this can make a world of difference. There is a sort of comfort to be found in conversations that reminisce, appreciate the little things in life, and look forward to a post-Covid world.

Although we are in a position that allows us to empathize, using this to facilitate positive change is a conscious decision that we must make. A natural response to a health crisis is fear. The threat of disease may result in increased ethnocentrism and negative behavior towards out-groups.18 In the past, this has led to discrimination and prejudice that have compromised our ability to empathize and act. We are better than that. Now that you are aware of the tools that you have, I hope you will let your empathy guide you towards making a positive change in the world.


[1] Perlman, D. (2004). European and Canadian studies of loneliness among seniors. Canadian Journal on Aging/La Revue canadienne du vieillissement23(2), 181-188.

[2] Kabátová, O., Puteková, S., & Martinková, J. (2016). Loneliness as a Risk Factor for Depression in the Elderly. Clin Soc Work J7, 48.

[3] Donovan, N. J., Okereke, O. I., Vannini, P., Amariglio, R. E., Rentz, D. M., Marshall, G. A., & Sperling, R. A. (2016). Association of higher cortical amyloid burden with loneliness in cognitively normal older adults. JAMA psychiatry73(12), 1230-1237.

[4] D’ippolito, S., Shams, M., Ambrosini, E., Calì, G., & Pastorelli, D. (2017). The effect of loneliness on cancer mortality. Annals of Oncology28(6), 82-88

[5] Patterson, A. C., & Veenstra, G. (2010). Loneliness and risk of mortality: A longitudinal investigation in Alameda County, California. Social science & medicine71(1), 181-186.

[6] Shiovitz-Ezra, S., & Ayalon, L. (2010). Situational versus chronic loneliness as risk factors for all-cause mortality. International Psychogeriatrics22(3), 455.

[7] Tilvis, R. S., Laitala, V., Routasalo, P. E., & Pitkälä, K. H. (2011). Suffering from loneliness indicates significant mortality risk of older people. Journal of aging research2011.

[8] Levy, B. (2009). Stereotype embodiment: A psychosocial approach to aging. Current directions in psychological science18(6), 332-336.

[9] Bennett, T., & Gaines, J. (2010). Believing what you hear: The impact of aging stereotypes upon the old. Educational Gerontology36(5), 435-445.

[10] Nelson, T. D. (2016). Promoting healthy aging by confronting ageism. American Psychologist71(4), 276.

[11] Nelson, T. D. (Ed.). (2004). Ageism: Stereotyping and prejudice against older persons. MIT press.

[12] Batson, C. D., & Ahmad, N. Y. (2009). Using empathy to improve intergroup attitudes and relations. Social issues and policy review3(1), 141-177.

[13] Cikara, M., Bruneau, E. G., & Saxe, R. R. (2011). Us and them: Intergroup failures of empathy. Current Directions in Psychological Science20(3), 149-153.

[14] Thomas, J., & McDonagh, D. (2013). Empathic design: Research strategies. The Australasian medical journal6(1), 1.

[15] Banja, J. D. (2006). Empathy in the physician’s pain practice: Benefits, barriers, and recommendations. Pain medicine7(3), 265-275.

[16] Waytz, A., & Gray, K. (2018). Does online technology make us more or less sociable? A preliminary review and call for research. Perspectives on Psychological Science13(4), 473-491.

[17] Doré, B. P., Morris, R. R., Burr, D. A., Picard, R. W., & Ochsner, K. N. (2017). Helping others regulate emotion predicts increased regulation of one’s own emotions and decreased symptoms of depression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin43(5), 729-739.

[18] Van Bavel, J. J., Baicker, K., Boggio, P. S., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., … & Drury, J. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature Human Behaviour, 1-12.

About the Author

Neerjah Skantharajah

Neerjah Skantharajah

University of Toronto

Neerjah is a translational researcher in training. She is passionate about demystifying the world of research and extending the reach of scientific findings. Her specific interests lie in the aging population and the interplay between art and healthcare. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Translational Research at the University of Toronto. Through her final year capstone project, she hopes to understand and act upon the needs of seniors to improve their quality of life. She continues to immerse herself in this space by working with organizations such as Hospice Palliative Care Ontario and the BC Centre for Palliative Care.

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