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Caregiving and Compassion Fatigue

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By Erin Denstaedt, Certified Concierge Care Advisor

You’ve heard of burnout but may not have heard of “compassion fatigue”. As more family members become caregivers, they seem to be learning about this term. A heavy workload and never-ending tasks may make you wonder if you’ve developed Compassion Fatigue. What is it, and what can you do about it? Compassion Fatigue is a type of stress caused by caring for others. Although burnout develops over time, Compassion Fatigue comes on suddenly. Compassion Fatigue is caused by empathy and is the natural consequence of stress resulting from the caring and helping of loved ones. Burnout and Compassion Fatigue may overlap.

The symptoms of compassion fatigue can be worrisome and include:

  • Less ability to function
  • More stress than usual
  • Caregiver feels traumatized
  • Working harder, getting less done
  • Irritability
  • Feeling bored
  • More sickness, aches, and pains

When compassion fatigue strikes you and your loved one may both suffer. You feel like your life has become a “stress mess”. Having a few of the symptoms doesn’t mean you necessarily have compassion fatigue.

What can you do about this form of stress?

  • Assess your self-care. If you haven’t seen a doctor in years, now is the time to get a physical exam. Ask your doctor to update your prescriptions, because some may be out of date.
  • Stay physically active. Put regular physical activity on your daily calendar. Walking is the easiest and cheapest form of physical activity. A fifteen-minute walk, short as it is, can boost your spirits.
  • Try deep breathing. Also called diaphragm breathing, this technique can help to reduce stress. The technique is difficult at first, but the more you practice it, the easier it becomes.
  • Check your support system.Fill in any gaps that you find. Put a list of emergency phone numbers on your cell phone or by your landline phone.
  • Join a caregiving support group.This could be a hospital group, church group, or an online community perhaps.
  • Include some fun in each day. Take a break and read a magazine, or watch a television program, or another activity that brings you joy, or call a friend. Sitting quietly may also bring peace and relaxation.
  • Care for your spiritual self. How you do this depends upon your religious and spiritual beliefs. Ask your church for help if you need it because these are the folks who show up, work hard, and give you hugs.

If you follow these steps and you may get rid of compassion fatigue before it begins. It is insidious and many folks don’t recognize it until they are deep in it.  If caring for a loved one is taking a toll on you, consider a respite (a short stay that could be a weekend, or several weeks at an assisted living community) for your loved one. This is an entirely new subject, but can be a life-saver and a real break for a caregiver!

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