As a longtime professional in-home caregiver, I’ve worked with a lot of older adults and family members over the years. Many of them are juggling caring for their senior loved one with working and raising kids of their own. I see firsthand how exhausted and stressed they are.
Unfortunately, I also see what happens when that juggling act gets to be too much. Caregiver burnout is common among families before they call professionals for help providing care.
Lately I’ve heard the term “compassion fatigue” being used. I’m wondering if that is the same thing as caregiver burnout? If not, what is the difference and what are the signs of compassion fatigue? I’d like to learn more so I can better help the families of my clients.
What is Compassion Fatigue Syndrome?
What an insightful question! Thank you for asking it. Like you, I’ve noticed the topic of compassion fatigue being talked about more frequently. Articles on the effects of compassion fatigue and the associated treatments are now much easier to find. That’s great news for families and those who are dedicated to helping families cope with the role of caregiver.
While compassion fatigue and burnout are often heard together, they mean rather different things. Most family caregivers who experience burnout find it develops over time. They start out doing a few errands or tasks for their senior loved one each week and gradually end up providing almost total care. Family caregivers reach a point where they are physically exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed.
By contrast, compassion fatigue syndrome is an extreme case of emotional distress. For family caregivers, it can be caused by witnessing a loved one’s suffering. Compassion fatigue symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, pessimism, and even a loss of empathy for the person being cared for.
Family members who are long-term caregivers for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease are often at a high risk for compassion fatigue. This is because they witness their family member’s physical and mental decline and the resulting loss of dignity. Compassion fatigue is considered to be a secondary traumatic stress disorder because of the emotional toll it takes on caregivers.
Signs of compassion fatigue can surface in a variety of ways:
- Developing new health problems, such as stomachaches, digestive issues, headaches, extreme fatigue, and insomnia.
- Difficulty concentrating, problems with attention span, increase in negative thoughts, and overall feelings of pessimism.
- Experiencing tearfulness, agitation, and anger. In some cases, the caregiver may even grow resentful of the family member who needs care and toward family members who aren’t pitching in to help.
- Developing new, unhealthy habits, like smoking or drinking alcohol. Relying on medication to help sleep, and using caffeinated beverages to stay awake during the daytime.
- Feeling angry with whatever higher power a caregiver believes in.
Caregivers can take compassion fatigue self-tests through the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project to assess their well-being and where they are on the compassion fatigue scale. The American Academy of Family Physicians also offers caregivers information on how to deal with compassion fatigue.
I hope this information helps give you the answers you need!