Stroke Shattered Their Retirement Dreams

Empathy for Shattered DreamKim and Tom’s retirement dreams were shattered when Tom had a stroke five months ago. Married for 35 years, they live in a small town north of Cleveland. When Kim turned 60 three months before Tom’s stroke, she retired from her career as a social worker. Tom was a heavy-equipment operator, and they planned for him to work another 5-6 years. But with her retirement, they could travel in the winter when he didn’t work. Tom’s stroke turned their world upside down.

On a sunny afternoon in the middle of winter, Kim finished shoveling out from a big snowfall. She turned her attention to a mountain of paperwork that she had been avoiding for months. “Where do I even begin?” Instead of diving into it, she gazed out the window at their brand new RV buried in snow. They should be in Arizona right now, hiking the trails in Sedona and snuggling around evening campfires. Their plans were to explore Arizona this winter, looking for a place to retire.

Kim and Tom have two grown sons (Kyle and David) and five grandkids. David lives in CA. Kyle lives three hours away and tries to visit once a month. He helped her get their house ready for winter, but she wishes both her sons lived closer.

Tom’s prognosis is pretty good. The doctors think that he will recover 80% of his motor skills, but he will never work as a heavy equipment operator again. This is devastating, because they planned on his income and employer-provided health insurance. Tom struggles with his speech and can’t handle complex tasks. She feels like he aged 20 years in 3 months.

Instead of volunteering and gardening, Kim’s spends all her time taking care of Tom and managing their household. He can’t drive, so she has to take him to all his medical appointments and help with his home therapy. Tom will qualify for disability benefits, but she doesn’t know how much money that will be until she weighs into the application process. Her first peek at the SSA website made her groan—it will be a chore.

The stroke-related paperwork overflows the dining room table. Hospital bills, doctor bills, OT and PT bills, and insurance authorization forms stream in daily. Much of the information is contradictory—and it’s all confusing. These bills have buried her retirement dreams just like the snow that covers their RV. In a rare fit of anger, she swiped the papers off the counter onto the floor and burst into tears.

User Stories Help Marketers Gain Empathy

Empathy is the centerpiece of human-centered design or Design Thinking, which is a creative problem solving method founded by Stanford University dSchool. Popularized by the global innovation and design firm, IDEO, it’s widely used as a method for innovation. Through observation and interaction, insights professionals gain empathy about the emotional, physical, and social influences on users’ choices. Another way to empathize with users is through stories that reveal their struggles and emotions.

Stories Trigger the Empathy Hormone

Not only do people like stories, but it turns out we are hard-wired to respond to a good tale. Paul Zak, a leading neuroscientist, has studied the effect of storytelling on oxytocin levels. Oxytocin—also known as the love hormone—triggers feelings of compassion, trust, and empathy. Zak’s work showed that the brain produces more oxytocin in response to a good story. However his research found that the story needs to have certain narrative elements:

  • Character (a relatable character is better)
  • Obstacle, conflict, or tension (may or may not overcome the struggle)
  • A pivotal insight or moment of truth
  • Journey reveals an emotional transformation and (maybe) a universal truth

Using Empathy Stories to Design

I wrote the story about Kim and Tom for a training workshop to help the marketing team in a health insurance company develop more empathy for their clients. I was working with WomanWise, a firm that specializes in marketing to women, to design a customized curriculum. Since women make 80% of the healthcare decisions for their families, the marketing team wanted to learn how to communicate with them more effectively. The team used this and other stories to gain empathy. Then they worked in small groups to write the end of Kim’s story. As the marketers imagined happy endings, they considered how they might design programs and services that assist clients like Kim through a health crisis. They also generated marketing copy with more compassionate and insightful language.

This is just one of many ways to use stories during creative problem solving and innovation. When curating and crafting user stories, keep in mind what Zak’s research reveals about stories and empathy. Look for these elements: a character(s), a struggle, a moment of truth, and transformation.

“A picture is worth a thousand words. A story is worth a thousand pictures.” ―Power of Metaphor


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