Being a caregiver is important, but difficult work.
Caregivers are caring and compassionate people who put their lives on hold in order to be there and to be ready to handle anything that might come up with the one they are caring for.
The best ones take the care part of being a caregiver very seriously and view caregiving as more than just a job. At its best, being a caregiver can be very rewarding and fulfilling work. Ideally, caregivers love the person they’re caring for and love caring for them.
Caregivers don’t necessarily need to be trained or certified. Anyone—friends, family, anyone in a survivor’s life—can provide that survivor significant and loving care. What I’ve written focuses more on people who are career caregivers, but much of it can apply to anyone in a caregiver position.
So what happens when a labor of love becomes labor? Is it possible to care too much? Caregiving can become tense and stressful after a point where the constant need to be preoccupied with the needs and suffering of those they are helping can be overwhelming.
What is compassion fatigue and how can caregivers recognize when they have it? One definition I found online is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.
Some symptoms are headaches, digestive problems, feeling overwhelmed by the job and irritability. A major giveaway that a caregiver is experiencing compassion fatigue is feeling detached from the person they’re caring for, as well as others. Mental and emotional distress are other symptoms.
That, in a nutshell is compassion fatigue. There are a lot of moving parts to caregiving and compassion fatigue. This is just a brief overview.
I asked my friend Bob (not his real name) about compassion fatigue. Bob is a former caregiver who now supervises caregivers for an agency that trains and oversees caregivers. Most of what follows is me paraphrasing things Bob told me. Direct quotes are Bob’s own words.
Bob tells me good caregivers are the ones who are genuinely caring and compassionate people by nature, people who are altruistic, and are naturally concerned with the welfare of others.
But even some of the most caring and compassionate caregivers can feel burned out with their work.
“I think compassion fatigue comes from being overwhelmed, not just in the caregiver role but also in their personal lives–managing your life and then at the same time managing the life of someone else that is not able to function on their own,” says Bob.
What can caregivers do when they realize they are experiencing compassion fatigue?
Caregivers should definitely be absolutely clear on their motive for wanting to be a caregiver in the first place. Someone not willing to make the time or put in the effort and put their own interests aside for the time they are with their client and tend to their needs, or ones who go into it looking at it as just another job, should probably not be caregivers.
“One thing caregivers can do is create space between their personal and professional lives,” shares Bob. “Some people bring work home with them, and when you’re dealing with someone that is not able to do for themselves, you’re constantly thinking about what they need or what’s going to happen for them.”
Likewise, don’t bring your personal life with you to work–leave it at home. Learn to compartmentalize your work and personal life, to keep them separate and concentrate on what needs to be done for each area. Focus on what needs to be done right now in either area and don’t let one bleed over into the other.
That might be easier said than done, though.
Bob explained: “The idea of being able to go to work and stay in the right frame of mind about giving care and helping the person they’re with manage their own life is definitely something that pulls on their heart strings, pulls on their time and their emotions.”
Sometimes, for the good of everyone involved, the best thing a caregiver can do is take a step back, to take a break in order to stay fully engaged and committed.
In Bob’s view, it’s desirable for a caregiver to learn a kind of clinical detachment, the same kind doctors and nurses develop with patients. It isn’t about not caring or being indifferent to the client’s needs; they learn to be absolutely focused on the problem at hand, more than on the person. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about that person; it means while they are on the job they focus on what is necessary in the moment and nothing else, knowing that their best efforts will benefit their patient.
Frustration in a caregiver’s own life can carry over into their work. The one on the receiving end can pick up on that frustration, knowing the person responsible for their care may view them as an inconvenience or worse, leading to their own frustration—on top of any frustration they may feel for needing care to begin with. In some cases that frustration can manifest as resentment.
“If a person is really strong-willed and centered in themselves well enough they’ll know where to place the frustration. If you’re not centered or don’t know too much about yourself or don’t have a handle on things for yourself that makes it easier to become fatigued,” Bob told me.
Recognize when you’re in over your head—that the job may be more than you bargained for—and don’t be afraid to admit it. Denial doesn’t help either one of you.
Frustration can also come from unwanted or unnecessary intrusions from the family. It’s difficult to know how to handle it in a way that doesn’t make any anger or tension worse, but one way to avoid that happening is for each side to be clear on exactly what is expected from the other party right from the beginning.
If you can, put it in writing–what the family wants and expects you to do, how they want you to do it, when they want it done, and so on. You can submit for their approval your own care plan and how you will implement it. It’s easier to negotiate the terms of an agreement in advance. You may want to insist on spending some time with their loved one in before you commit to becoming their caregiver to get a feel for the person you will be taking care of. If necessary this agreement can be written out and signed by both parties in order to avoid tension and unpleasantness later.
Stick to your plan and revise it when it doesn’t appear to be working out.
“Plan it better and realize whoever you’re going to be caring for is going to need your full undivided attention during the time you’re with that person,” Bob added.
Some suggestions to help stave off compassion fatigue:
1. Love your work enough to step back and assess how fragmented you’ve become.
2. Love yourself enough to digress.
3. Love life enough to revise how you approach your work for your client and family and demonstrate your value to them.
4. Treat yourself to quiet time for self reflection.
5. Determine that you will return stronger and more resilient.
6. See a counselor if compassion fatigue becomes unmanageable.
7. Imagine someone struggling with the same difficulties you are experiencing. What would you advise that person? Don’t hesitate to take your own advice.
8. One of the most important things in caring for someone else, if not the most important thing, is to take care of yourself as well. “Self-care is very important. Make sure that when you’re accepting the responsibility of taking care of someone, it’s not putting you in a place where things change so severely that you can’t manage your own life,” says Bob.
Above all, to be a caring and compassionate caregiver, remember to have compassion for yourself.
Isaac Peterson grew up on an Air Force base near Cheyenne, Wyoming. After graduating from the University of Wyoming, he embarked on a career as an award-winning investigative journalist and as a semi-professional musician in the Twin Cities, the place he called home on and off for 35 years. He also doesn’t mind it at all if someone offers to pick up his restaurant tab. Peterson also welcomes reader comments. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.