Approximately 75 percent of caregivers consider their caregiving situations to be highly or moderately stressful, according to The National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and the AARP Public Policy Institute’s “Caregiving in the U.S.” report. In some cases, this leads to a debilitating phenomenon known as compassion fatigue. While less discussed than caregiver stress and burnout, this condition is common among caregivers.
Could you or someone you love be suffering from compassion fatigue? Read on for a closer look at this threat to wellbeing, along with prevention and treatment tips for senior caregivers.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
"Compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it 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," says Tulane University’s Dr. Charles Figley.
Also referred to as secondhand shock, secondary stress reaction, and vicarious traumatization, compassion fatigue is common among medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, emergency workers, and psychotherapists, who, in helping traumatized patients, often develop PTSD symptoms of their own as an indirect response. Also falling into this category? Caregivers. In fact, it is the very trait that leaves caregivers vulnerable to stress and compassion fatigue that often attracts them to the vital work they do: empathy for the helpless and/or suffering.
According to the Compassion Fatigue Project, “Studies confirm that caregivers play host to a high level of compassion fatigue. Day in, day out, workers struggle to function in caregiving environments that constantly present heart wrenching, emotional challenges. Affecting positive change in society, a mission so vital to those passionate about caring for others is perceived as elusive, if not impossible. This painful reality, coupled with first-hand knowledge of society's flagrant disregard for the safety and well-being of the feeble and frail, takes its toll on everyone from full-time employees to part-time volunteers. Eventually, negative attitudes prevail.”
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
- Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion
- Feelings of inequity toward the therapeutic or caregiver relationship
- Feelings of self-contempt
- Difficulty sleeping
- Weight loss
- Poor job satisfaction
How do these symptoms play out in the day to day lives of caregivers? A Psychology Today survey of caregivers with compassion fatigue elicited comments including, “‘I frequently dissociated and felt that I walked around in an altered state. I didn't realize that I had been in a gray space all year. That had sort of crept in,” and “It got to the point where I would feel physically sick before the appointment and feeling nauseous.”
Compassion Fatigue Prevention and Treatment
Contrary to popular misconception, burnout and compassion fatigue aren’t the same thing, although they do share several overlapping symptoms. While burnout typically emerges over time, the onset of compassion fatigue can be much quicker. Additionally, compassion fatigue is generally more treatable and preventable than burnout.
The most important defense against compassion fatigue? Self-care. Specifically, self-awareness and self-monitoring can help caregivers notice the early signs of compassion fatigue before they escalate. Explains says Psychology Today, “Since caregivers commonly dissociate, staying connected or reconnecting to one’s identity and physical presence has been rated as very important.” Recommended prevention practices, including reducing their workloads, monitoring sleep patterns, medication, journaling, seeking personal therapy, regular exercise, and vacations.
Experts also reinforce the value of focusing on the positive, having a sense of humor, and feeling gratitude. When self-doubt and/or bad feelings do begin, talking about your feelings, getting restful sleep, pursuing a hobby outside of work, and reaching out to support groups and networks can also help support compassion resiliency.
Unfortunately, many caregivers who suffer from compassion fatigue are unaware of the issue. This is what makes learning to recognize and manage the symptoms a critical part of the healing process. mmLearn.org offers a large library of free videos for caregivers of older adults, covering topics pertaining to senior care. Whether you are a healthcare professional or a family caregiver, if you are caring for an older adult we know that you will find mmLearn.org to be an essential learning and guidance tool for all of your caregiver training needs. Access our database of free online caregiver videos today, including our three-part caregiver stress module.
If you're looking for a comprehensive resource for family caregivers, check out our online Family Caregiver Guide.