Woman caregiver with her senior mother

You tell yourself everything is fine. If you can just hang in there a little longer, it will all be fine. Then once again you find that Mom has put something strange in the coffee pot while trying to be helpful. Milk this time; last time she put peanuts in the filter basket! You know it’s just the dementia but you blow your stack and say things you never thought you would say to this wonderful person who cared for you when you were young, was there for you when you got married, and helped so much with your children. Suddenly tears well up and you quickly retreat to the rest room where it all comes flowing out. OK, maybe you aren’t as “OK” as you thought you were.

We all have times when things seem overwhelming especially to those of us who have taken on the challenges of caregiving. But when burnout or compassion fatigue may be developing its probably time for some changes.

Caregiver Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue

Burnout is commonly known as a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress and frustration. The stages of burnout are stagnation, frustration and finally, apathy. Most of us can think of a time when we have felt this way or have come close to feeling this way. Usually after following some simple steps to improve self-care we manage to get back on track. But when prolonged stress and frustration are combined with a high level of compassion and empathy a condition called compassion fatigue can begin to emerge. Also called secondary traumatic stress this condition was first noticed in nurses caring for the chronically ill and is now recognized in various helping professions from psychology to social work. Formal caregivers particularly at risk are those who have a large capacity for empathy towards their patients.

A certain level of detachment is crucial for prolonged caregiving. So, if you consider the huge unconditional love felt for family members, parents in particular, the informal caregiver can be at risk for developing compassion fatigue. Things to look out for include apathy, emotional isolation, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and insufficiency. As a result of these feelings someone with compassion fatigue can become depressed, and feel burdened resulting in decreased relationship quality and possibly ending caregiving, or even worse, neglecting or abusing the family member.

What You Can Do to Prevent Caregiver Burnout

Be Aware of Your Feelings:

  1. Developing feelings of apathy, emotional isolation, hopelessness, helplessness, insufficiency.
  2. Becoming frustrated and irritated easily.
  3. Feeling burdened.
  4. Feeling depressed.
  5. Developing illness, aches, and pains.
  6. Compromised ability to function.

Balance Your Time As a Caregiver:

  1. Recognize the importance of excellent self-care.
  2. Make time for activities that bring joy and diversion.
  3. Learn caregiver stress relief techniques.
  4. Make time for something you are passionate about.
  5. Don’t use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate (get medical help for symptoms that are interfering with your life).
  6. Find ways to cope with loss and grief (take a class, find a support group, go to grief therapy).
  7. Learn how to focus on what you can control.
  8. Take care of your body (exercise, get adequate sleep, good nutrition).

Connection with others about your Struggles:

  1. Talk about your stress with someone you trust (therapist, clergy, family, friend, support group).
  2. Consider a pet (pets give unconditional attention).
  3. Build a positive support system (without those people who make you feel worse).
  4. Look for online caregiver communities.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was an extraordinary caregiver and she knew the toll that caregiving can take so much so that she made it mandatory that her nuns take an entire year off from their duties every 4-5 years to heal from the effects of their work. Most of us can’t take that kind of time off but it shows the importance of good self-care to counter act the effects of caregiving.