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Don’t Let Caregiving Give Way to Compassion Fatigue

Caregivers for seniors selflessly devote time, energy, and emotional support. But an outpouring of caring over time can lead to compassion fatigue.‘Care’ is the root of caregiving. For seniors aging in place, caregivers devote time and energy — perhaps assisting with daily activities and chores, providing transportation, managing household expenses, or helping to cope with chronic illness and medication management. Yet in each of these tasks, there is an emotional component. Although caregivers may be subject to momentary feelings of frustration or exhaustion, the underlying current of feeling comes from affection and compassion — wanting to do everything possible to better the life of someone so dear.

When times get tough or in home care giving demands increase, caregivers might lean on this wellspring of emotion in order to continue giving of themselves. But these resources are not infinite: an outpouring of caring over weeks, months, or years can cause something known as ‘compassion fatigue.’ Keep reading to learn more about this phenomenon, its widespread effects, and how to avoid giving way to this form of caregiver burnout.

According to trauma expert Dr. Charles Figley, compassion fatigue is ‘an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.’ In fact, another name for this condition is ‘secondary traumatic stress.’ Clinicians who specifically work with people undergoing loss or trauma — mental health professionals, emergency responders, and many others — can fall prey to compassion fatigue, feeling like they have given so much of themselves that nothing remains. One example is this story by Jeromy Guthrie, a Hospice chaplain, reflecting on his own experience and the life changes and strategies he used to overcome the condition.

But this form of burnout does not only apply to professionals; it can be found in family caregivers as well. When a senior or loved one is suffering or in need, the caregiver is often closest to that hurt, acting as a confidante or offering empathy to share that feeling. Those empathy stores can get overtaxed, causing a shortage in other aspects of life: work, home, family, and leisure. People with compassion fatigue may seem to shut down, becoming withdrawn, irritable, and disinterested. Sometimes, substance abuse can become a dangerous coping mechanism. What’s more, not only can your quality of life and relationships suffer, but so can your ability as a caregiver.

It is possible to avoid compassion fatigue; the greatest weapon against it is self-care. That may take the form of knowing your limits and learning when to say ‘no,’ or it may come from accepting help from others. Preserve your mental and emotional health, and your effectiveness as a loving caregiver, by taking the time to practice stress management and balance.

Are you struggling to care for a loved one, or recognizing signs of caregiver burnout in your life? You can quickly determine whether your loved one might benefit from the in-home health care services offered by Residential Home Health by taking our online Home Care Assessment — or call (888)930-WELL (9355) to discuss your specific situation with a Home Care Specialist today.