The last 18 months have been incredibly taxing on the human psyche as we experience the COVID-19 virus, racial tensions, a challenging economy, the recent gas shortage, and isolation. On top of all of these things which have exhausted most Americans, family caregivers have carried an impossible load. In "normal" times, most caregivers experience the fatigue and frustration of providing care for a loved one which can lead to the point of caregiver burnout. Even though I've handled caring for an elder and their unique needs reasonably well, there have been moments when I've wondered how much longer I could keep it up. There were truth-telling moments where I told my loved one how tired I was and there was the guilt of being so honest.
Most caregivers have probably heard about burnout, but many are unfamiliar with the concept of "compassion fatigue" and how these two conditions differ. Compassion fatigue results from physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project takes this definition farther by noting that compassion fatigue may result in apathy or a reduced ability to be empathetic. Family caregivers are often compassionate individuals by nature, and while compassion is typically considered an asset, it leaves them at risk for the negative "costs of caring" for others. Unlike caregiver burnout, compassion fatigue results from exposure to another person's traumatic experience(s) and creates high levels of emotional stress.
It is the cumulative result of days, weeks, months, and years of managing caregiving responsibilities that are often unrecognized, seemingly endless, emotionally demanding, and physically exhausting. As a result, it is not uncommon for feelings of frustration, resentment, hopelessness, guilt, and/or a diminished sense of self to manifest.
Compassion fatigue causes caregivers to experience a weakened sense of empathy for those in their care. This is an important distinction because most family caregivers take on their role out of love. Family caregivers are emotionally invested in their loved ones' well-being, leaving them especially vulnerable.
Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue in Family Caregivers:
- Feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and drained
- Avoidance and not wanting to be around your loved one (choosing to work late, daydreaming about no longer having to care for them, etc.)
- A decrease in patience and tolerance
- Angry outbursts that are uncharacteristic of your behavior
- Cynicism and hopelessness
- Heightened anxiety
- Impaired ability to make care decisions
- Difficulty sleeping
- Physical symptoms, such as headaches or gastrointestinal issues
"I am experiencing compassion fatigue, now what?"
Each caregiver has different limits, and there are times throughout the caregiving journey when one's susceptibility to stress will ebb and flow. During increased times of stress, caregivers may experience these warning signs. These feelings and behaviors are undesirable but common for a demographic that is so overworked and has so few available resources. When the list above begins to describe daily life rather than fleeting behavior on a bad day, it is absolutely time to act:
Ask for help! Needing help doesn't make you a bad caregiver. It simply means you can't do it alone (no one can do it alone).
- Give yourself permission to take breaks. Get out of the house. Visit with friends. Pamper yourself with a massage. Take a long bath.
- Take care of yourself. Don't skip your own medical appointments because you're too busy.
- Get up 15 minutes earlier and use the time just for you. Even though you are tired, it will be worth it. Sit with your coffee or tea and enjoy it. Journal about your struggles and feelings. Meditate, pray, stretch, do whatever you want to do.
- Make a list of your daily activities and tasks. See if you can delegate any of them. As you check off those items, you can really see how much you accomplish in a day!
- If an opportunity comes along for a brief getaway for you, consider respite care for your loved one. This could include having your loved one stay with a capable family member or even a short-term admission into an assisted living community.
- Join a support group. Many have online options now so if it is really impossible to find someone to stay with your loved one, you can still be part of these lifeline groups virtually.
- Seek professional help if you really have so many dark days and you just can't dig yourself out. Compassion fatigue is a real issue and there is help.
If you are caregiving for a loved one and would like to get connected with others in our community who are walking the same path, join ABC11's Caregivers Corner moderated by Nicole Clagett. The group has 1500+ people supporting one another and sharing wonderful information and resources daily. More helpful tips about this topic can be found on ABC11's Caregivers Corner section.