How Dementia Caregivers Can Cope With Compassion Fatigue

Every caregiver faces challenges in the daily routine of providing ongoing care for a parent or senior loved one. This includes experiencing burnout, exhaustion and frustration, and according to some experts, compassion fatigue.

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How Dementia Caregivers Can Cope With Compassion Fatigue

Learn more about compassion fatigue, how it can impact dementia caregivers and ways to recognize it while caregiving.

Caregivers and Compassion Fatigue

Caregiver burnout is a common phenomenon amongst caregivers, but compassion fatigue is not so widely known.

According to Christine Valentin, a licensed clinical social worker and owner of a private counseling practice in New York and New Jersey:

“Compassion fatigue is an extreme state of stress and tension that can result in feelings of hopelessness, indifference, pessimism and overall disinterest in other people’s issues.”

Compassion fatigue is considered a secondary stress disorder resulting from a care recipient’s high level of emotional stress. Studies have shown that correctional workers, counselors, nurses and some social workers, have a high risk of the condition because of their work environments.

“While some may simplify and attribute compassion fatigue to frustration and/or resentment, it is important to understand that this is not something that occurs overnight,” Valentin notes. “It is the cumulative result of days, weeks, months and years of managing caregiving responsibilities that are often unrecognized, seemingly endless, emotionally demanding and physically exhausting. As a result, it is not uncommon for feelings of frustration, resentment… and/or a diminished sense of self to manifest.”

Caregiver Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue

It’s common for dementia caregivers to develop compassion fatigue, as a result of coping with the emotional needs of a loved one with dementia and a list of neverending tasks. Although most caregivers continue to do all they can for their parents or senior loved ones, the condition — unlike caregiver burnout — begins to rob them of the ability to have empathy for loved ones in their care.

“With regard to caregivers, compassion fatigue can manifest through actions like hitting or neglecting a loved one,” Valentin describes. “Basically, any action that is not characteristic of the caregiver’s typical behavior but is now present and consistent could be considered a result of this condition.”

It’s important for community and family members to avoid any type of judgment of caregivers who experience the condition, as it is considered a person’s breaking point, from tolerating the intolerable for too long.

Ways to Recognize and Prevent Compassion Fatigue

Learning the early signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue is vital to preventing the long-term emotional trauma that can accompany the condition.

“Being proactive is one of the best ways to combat compassion fatigue or at least prevent it from getting out of hand,” urges Valentin.

Early signs of compassion fatigue include:

  • Experiencing heightened anxiety
  • Expressing uncharacteristic behaviors (such as outbursts)
  • Feeling a lower level of patience
  • Feeling cynical
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Feeling increasingly intolerant
  • Feelings of being extremely emotionally drained or overwhelmed
  • Having an impairment in decision making
  • Not feeling like being around a loved one

If a caregiver experiences any of the above symptoms, it’s vital to start taking care of one’s own needs… immediately.

“Allocate, at the very least, five minutes each day… Give yourself a mental and physical break from actively caring for a loved one,” Valentin encourages. “The ability to do so in small bursts can allow you to begin the practice of adequately caring for yourself and hopefully get you to increase these efforts moving forward.”


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