Can compassion be learnt? Can it be taught?

The Francis Report, published in Feb 2013, brought into public view the systemic failures at Mid Staffordshire NHS Healthcare Trust. The report referred to a ‘compassion deficit’ to describe the institutional mindset, and Government proposals to change the training of nurses are designed to foster a ‘culture of compassion’.

What does ‘compassion’ mean in practice?

I recently attended an exhibition at Royal College of Art, and was excited by energetic design innovations that result from juxtaposing seemingly unrelated ideas.  One unlikely combination of ideas stood out for me: coupling plastic tile making with dementia care training.

Recycling plastic milk containers and incorporating textiles and objects supplied by patients and carers and luminescent fibres, one PhD student ran workshops in an end-of-life care home that specialises in caring for patients living with Alzheimer’s Disease. Residents, their families and staff all took part.  Her project aim was to make experimental design practice serve the needs of a specific group.  The material outcome was plastic floor and wall tiles made collectively that not only personalised residents’ rooms, but also glowed in the dark to provide a guide to the bathroom at night.

Textiles and smell are particularly effective in evoking early and meaningful memories in people who have lost, or are losing, the ability to recall at will.  Materials supplied by participants had emotional, aesthetic or sensory significance for them. The participants worked in co-operation, using different senses and materials, evoking spontaneous memories rather than consciously recalled ones.

The shared experience was not only an enjoyable and creative time for all attendees, but also an invaluable chance for residents, relatives and staff to spend time together. The process, where each group felt cared for and supported, helped to build on the empathy felt amongst the group – as each person was working together.

Following on from this work the Art and Humanities Research Council has awarded the RCA a grant for a nine month study, part of their Cultural Value agenda, a national strategy to demonstrate the difference that art and design make to quality of life.  Compassion by Design will measure and assess the institutional and emotional benefits of the creative effects of design collaboration in a care home environment.  It asks the question: if procedural techniques for working with people can lead to mechanized indifference, can shared creative practice release empathy?  It will use a 12-week multi-sensory workshop environment (facilitated by the original researcher) – one that is neither an occupational therapy group nor a reminiscence workshop – as its case study.

The group will include nurses and care workers.  The research will look at whether it is possible to create an emotionally strong community, with the capacity for sustainable empathy and concern through the agency of creative collaboration. It will investigate whether compassion is something done with rather than delivered to another person.

With compassion a key part of how we provide care and support, it is important that we start thinking creatively about how encourage it.

Dementia Care Plastic Art 1

Dementia Care Plastic Art 2

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