According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, over 40 million people in the United States provided unpaid care to a family member with a chronic health condition over the last year. This type of unpredictable, often intense and emotional care can create undue stress in the caregiver and up until recently was described as “secondary stress disorder”. The term “compassion fatigue” has now replaced this description and is characterized as “the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick, suffering or traumatized people” (Figley, 1982).
Compassion fatigue is of special interest to Rose Hill’s Vice President, Cheryl Wallace, because of her work with families as well as her personal experience as the wife of a first responder. Cheryl recently gave a presentation on this subject at Kevin’s Song Conference that was very well received. While Cheryl’s personal experience relates to first responders, many family members may feel like first responders but without the benefits of time off or employment support programs.
Caregivers should be aware of commonalities that are often found among people experiencing compassion fatigue. People who care for others, typically, but not always, are in their 50’s and 60’s. Someone caring for an elderly relative, parents of adult children with special needs, etc. are conventional examples of family caregivers. Those that provide care for 25 hours or more per week are more susceptible to compassion fatigue than those who have less caregiver burden. Someone in poor health is also at greater risk.
Cheryl discussed, and experts agree, that it is important to recognize the signs of compassion fatigue, as they are often overlooked by someone while they are experiencing it. Feeling weighed down, tired, depressed or hopeless are classic signs along with extreme tension, pessimism, or irritability which is out of character. Many people can become avoidant, isolative, or bottle up their feelings. Compassion fatigue can even present as physical ailments, like insomnia, difficulty concentrating, or desensitization. Being aware of these warning signs and recognizing them as compassion fatigue is the first step in treatment.
Protective Factors and Interventions
A study published in 2018 (Lynch, Shuster & Lobo) showed that compassion satisfaction is a protective factor for those as risk for compassion fatigue. Feeling good about the care you provide, personal growth, and feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment are some of the positive side effects of care giving. Also, older people (over 60 years old) report more satisfaction with care giving than younger people.
Once identified, compassion fatigue can be treated in a number of ways, and many experts agree that self-care is very important. Cheryl covered a number of self-care options in her presentation, including: setting aside “me” time; eating healthier foods; exercising; and getting enough sleep. Beyond the basics, self-care needs can vary by person. So find what makes you feel good and make it a regular part of your life. (This is good advice in any situation!) Alleviating some of the care giving burden by getting outside help can also reduce symptoms of fatigue along with stress management techniques, setting healthy boundaries, or seeking professional help. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) offers help for care givers who are supporting individuals with mental illness through their Family to Family program. Last but not least, be an advocate for yourself. If you suspect you are suffering from compassion fatigue recognize the signs and seek help (see resources below).
- 8 Ways to Relieve Caregiver Anxiety and Improve Well-Being
- 5 Coping Tips for the Overwhelmed Caregiver
- 11 Caregiver Support Groups on Facebook You’ll Want to Join
Figley, C. (1982). Traumatization and comfort: Close relationships may be hazardous to your health. Keynote presentation at the Conference, Families and close relationships: Individuals in social interaction, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, February.
Lynch, S., Shuster, G., & Lobo, M. (2018). The family caregiver experience – examining the positive and negative aspects of compassion satisfaction and compassion fatigue as caregiving outcomes. Aging & Mental Health, 22(11), 1424-1431. doi:10.1080/13607863.2017.1364344