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What is Compassion Fatigue? Does it Mean You Don’t Care?

Numerous studies have been conducted on what is known as “compassion fatigue”. Most relate to caregivers in skilled nursing and assisted living environments. But studies have also found that when compassion fatigue is experienced by adult children caring for parents with dementia, it can have an even greater emotional impact.  

Compassion fatigue is not quite the same as “caregiver burnout”.

What is compassion fatigue, and how does it differ from general “caregiver burnout”?

Author, Carol Bradley Bursack, wrote a thoughtful article in about the unique challenges associated with compassion fatigue. She distinguishes it from caregiver burnout as follows. “Unlike caregiver burnout, compassion fatigue is considered a secondary traumatic stress (STS) disorder that results from exposure to another person’s traumatic experience(s) and creates high levels of emotional stress.” So, your continual exposure to your loved one’s trauma can lead to your own feelings of despair, angry emotional outbursts, and not wanting to be around your loved one.

Thankfully, there are things you can do to better cope and maintain your emotional health. Carol Bursack’s article references experts who have worked with caregivers and who recommend two key actions. They may seem simple but, together they are very powerful.  

  1. Practice self-care. Start by putting aside 5 minutes of each day to relax by yourself. Have a snack, meditate or do something that pleases you. Gradually start building up the time from 5 minutes to 10 and so on. Over time you will have carved out important “me time”, which will leave your re-centered and refreshed.
  2. Find a non-judgemental outlet. For some, this might mean sitting down with a spiritual advisor. Others might see a therapist. Decide which is best for you and keep up your visits. Having a sounding board from an unbiased third party helps you regain perspective and can have a positive and lasting effect on your emotional wellbeing.

Having Compassion Fatigue does not mean you no longer care!

At Anthem Memory Care communities, we understand the toll that compassion fatigue can take. That’s why we are ever mindful and attentive to the needs of our caregivers. Recognizing signs of fatigue is so important to help support the emotional and physical well being of those we entrust to care for our residents.

For those of you lovingly tending to the needs of your mom or dad with dementia, we offer you this additional advice. Find a good dementia support group conducted by a licensed professional. They will help you better understand your feelings and how to acquire better coping mechanisms and life adjustments to keep your balance. Reach out to family and close friends who have offered to help in the past. Remember, you need more “down time” than you may think.

Above all, recognize that compassion fatigue does not mean you have lost your ability to care. It does mean, however, that you need to seek resources and support to keep that spark of compassion alive and healthy within you.