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Empathy and Aged Care with Sharon Blackburn CBE of BallyCara

Updated: Apr 22


Episode 31 - The Professional Empathy Podcast

Empathy and Aged Care with Sharon Blackburn CBE from BallyCara

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In this episode on The Empathy Podcast we explore Empathy and Aged Care with Sharon Blackburn CBE. The recent Royal Commission has brought much attention to aged care, and it may appear that empathy and aged care are mutually exclusive. Leanne and Sharon explore how empathy and relationships put the care back in aged care and why it is essential for our loved ones, families, aged care staff, and communities. Sharon shares with us the significance of relationship-centred care and how it can be practised to ultimately humanise the healthcare sector.

Sharon is an experienced social carer who has worked in the sector for over 40 years. She has held multiple executive leadership roles within non-profits and for-profit charities. She is passionate about helping people in organisations become the change they want to see in the world. Sharon was awarded a CBE in the Queen's New Year's Honours in 2016 for her contributions to nursing and non-profit organisations.

Sharon discusses the importance of involving clients in their own care and learning what matters to them. To truly build relationships with clients, healthcare professionals must acknowledge their thoughts and feelings and act accordingly. Not only does this improve the quality of care experienced by clients but the work engagement and satisfaction experienced by aged care professionals. To learn more about Sharon's work, you can email Sharon on

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Full Episode (audio only)

Empathy and Aged Care with Sharon Blackburn CBE


● 00:21 - 01:49 - Welcome notes and Sharon's intro

● 01:49 - 06:10 - Empathy and relationships in aged care

● 06:10 - 10:23 - Difference between relationship-centred care and person-centred care

● 10:23 - 16:37 - Benefits of relationship-centred care to the residents

● 16:37 - 22:23 - Why aged care has gotten a bad reputation in the press

● 22:23 - 26:50 - Mental health of the staff in aged care

● 26:50 - 29:26 - Day-to-day activities that enliven caregivers' spirits

● 29:26 - 34:36 - Having difficult conversations about death and dying

● 34:36 - 37:40 - Celebrating life versus fearing death

● 37:40 - 40:49 - Sharon's message to people who're interested in working in the aged care sector


Importance of relationship-centred care

Relationship-centred care is really important in any health or aged care service. So, anywhere where people are engaging with professionals or carers or allied health professionals, it always should start with the person using the service.

Care centred on relationship versus care centred on a person.

Care centred on a relationship versus care centred on a person are quite distinct. Relationship-centred care is about your being in a relationship with somebody — you could bring in words like co-production, collaboration, and co-design.

This doesn't mean that a person-centred approach doesn't achieve those things. But person-centred can sometimes be task-oriented because it is supposed to be on the person's terms.

So, relationship-centred care isn't just a plan that's personalised to you and how it will be executed with you. It adds another layer of depth and breadth to the interaction as you've really engaged the individual.

Aged care's bad reputation in the media.

Everything about age care isn't always good, but then everything isn't always good about healthcare. You can always find the things that need to be improved. But there's a lot more good happening in age care than is spoken about and celebrated. And obviously, good news stories don't necessarily make the media or the press. So, you don't hear the wonderful stories that take place and that are life-changing for people.

Things that enliven caregivers' spirits

It's in the everyday moments. Some of the activities caregivers do to brighten up their day are: using creative therapy and helping somebody that's got visual impairment to reengage with art and knowing that they can't do it in the standardised way that they would've expressed themselves previously.

But they're now doing it, and they're doing a lot more, they're using paints, but they're doing textured so that they can feel their way. The joy that comes from that detail and that engagement is great.

Having conversations about death and dying

Talking about death can be difficult. However, older people often talk about death more easily than the rest of us because they have experienced this loss in their lifetime. They understand that it’s part of life.

So it's not about forcing the conversation on somebody, but very much part of the whole care pathway and care planning, taking an approach to relationship-centeredness is actually when people engage. It's asking about what matters to them, and they can still make choices and decisions.

Sharon's message to people who're interested in working in the aged care sector

"Of course there are certain courses and learning that have to be achieved, but at the core, I want you to have a passion and a fire in your belly for people and their potential, particularly older people. I want you to be able to come and engage yourself and bring your whole self to work and know that if you are a vibrant person, fantastic, and if you are a quiet person, fantastic because the human race is made up of all different people. There will be opportunities for real good impact and engagement that is fulfilling for all concerned."


"Being professional doesn't mean that you're not human, you're not real, you can't build relationships, and you can't have a love for some things."

"It's sad, but it's a privilege to be with somebody at the end of their life to make it as comfortable as they can in a way they would like to be cared for."

"Celebrate life versus fear death."


Hi! I'm Leanne Butterworth, Empathy Speaker and Educator, University Lecturer and Mental Health Advocate.

Empathy First is a Brisbane-based social enterprise offering Empathy workshops, online courses and individual Empathy coaching to help you build connection and strengthen your relationships for personal and professional success.

Contact me today and let's talk about how you can put Empathy First.

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