Compassion Fatigue: What Caregivers Need to Know
Caregivers make it their mission to do everything possible for loved ones. Unfortunately, they often become stressed and develop compassion fatigue.
Family members who make sure their loved ones’ needs are met give the gift of caring every day. Caregivers shop for groceries, prepare meals, pick up prescriptions, assist with bathing and grooming—you name it, they do it. Caregivers make it their mission to do everything they can to make a loved one more comfortable at the end of life. Unfortunately, caregivers often times burn the candle at both ends and develop compassion fatigue.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue occurs when caregivers become stressed from caring for others. According to San Francisco psychotherapist Dennis Portnoy, “Compassion fatigue is caused by empathy. It is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping…suffering people.”
Compassion fatigue can be thought of as extreme burnout. It doesn’t just happen overnight. As days, weeks and months (in some cases years) march on with mounting responsibilities, caregivers become overwhelmed physically, emotionally, spiritually and socially. Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, said: “Every day in our caregiving role, we empty out in order to be present to those in our care. If we continue to empty out without filling up again, we place ourselves in harm’s way.”
So when it comes to this stress disorder, what should caregivers and their extended family be on the lookout for? The key indicator of compassion fatigue is sleep disruption. Caregivers with compassion fatigue often do not have the energy to deal with the issues that can materialize when caring for a loved one with a terminal illness. As a result, both the patient and caregiver suffer.
The following are some additional signs and symptoms associated with compassion fatigue:
- Decreasing ability to function
- Pulling back from normal activities
- Cancelling plans
- Increasing aches and pains
- Feeling bored and apathetic
- Memory problems
Is it Possible to Combat?
The first step in combatting compassion fatigue is to recognize and be aware that it is present. If you are a caregiver and the above signs and symptoms ring true in your life, seek professional help and let others know.
However, in practical terms, what should a caregiver do as a quick solution? First and foremost, experts believe the solution is to stop caregiving, even if it is just for a day. The following are some suggestions on how to make this happen.
Start with a half-day off. If a full-day off from caregiving isn’t possible, start with a half day. But it shouldn’t be a one-and-done happening. Caregivers should try to schedule half-days off on a regular basis to avoid compassion fatigue.
Phone a family member or friend. Ask for assistance from another family member who can pitch in and help care for your loved one for the day. Even better would be to set up a rotating schedule for help.
Tap into available community resources. If caring for a loved one under hospice care, all affiliates of Chapters Health System — Chapters Health Hospice, Good Shepherd Hospice, Hospice of Okeechobee, HPH Hospice and LifePath Hospice — have volunteers available to fill in and help.
4 Tips for Caregivers
Although compassion fatigue is possible, caregivers can set themselves up for success with a proactive approach. The following are tips to avoid compassion fatigue.
Regain balance. Caregivers often run into a problem by setting unrealistic goals. Then there is also the distinct possibility that too much is expected of them. Caregivers often have countless tasks given to them by many people. To get back on track, set limits and be prepared to follow through when they are crossed.
Take time for yourself. A quote by Parker Palmer says it all: “Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.”
When things go wrong or when caregivers feel they can’t do one more thing, it isn’t a sign of failure or weakness. They just need stop and take care of themselves. It is not being selfish to take some time for yourself. Caregivers cannot help others if they are not balanced.
Express yourself. Like Madonna sang in the late 1980s, it is important to “express yourself.” Caregivers can avoid compassion fatigue by being mindful of their feelings inside and out. Feelings can be expressed verbally by talking with someone, or journaling can be beneficial when writing about the entire experience.
Take a deep cleansing breath or two. Deep breathing exercises can help decrease stress and allow time for caregivers to regroup. Don’t know where to begin? There are quite a number of smartphone apps, such as Calm, that can help with deep breathing, and iWatch users have Breathe at the touch of a button on their watch. So stop and take a breath.
For some additional caregiver tips, check out “Caring for the Caregiver.”
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