Compassion Fatigue vs Caregiver Burnout and How to Avoid Them
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Excessive compassion can become a dangerous thing. Caregivers, trying to manage one of life’s most traumatic events, often try to tackle too many tasks and can face serious consequences.

Caregiver stress often shows itself in two distinct stages – compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout. These share many of the same symptoms and causes. Sustained exposure to suffering and watching a loved one decline can cause both conditions. For example, those who care for loved ones with dementia cannot slow the progression of the disease and that causes extreme levels of stress. In my case, I lost my father due to Alzheimer’s disease – an unstoppable condition.

As human beings, we all have our limitations – what we would like to do varies considerably to what we can do. Among our emotional and physical human restrictions is our inability to detach ourselves from situations – this can lead to rising levels of stress that result in both compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout.

Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout

Caregivers may often speak of compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout interchangeably. While there is a definite connection between compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout, the two terms are not the same conditions. Compassion fatigue occurs initially when caregivers cannot remove themselves from their loved one’s condition long enough to recover from the stress they develop attending to their needs. The caregiver becomes trapped and overwhelmed and feels guilt, trauma and depression.

Experiencing excessive negative feelings (and not managing these emotions effectively) can lead to caregiver burnout – as a second state. This includes physical symptoms like weight loss and sleep disturbances. Therefore, this is a two-step process where one thing must happen before the next. Imagine compassion fatigue as a waterfall and caregiver burnout as the water crashing down on the rocks below. Compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout can evolve slowly over time or occur more quickly.

Both family and professional caregivers are susceptible to both conditions. By paying attention to how you’re feeling and responding to your caregiving role, you can better assess if you are at risk. These are two very real problems that should not be ignored. For both your and your loved one’s benefit, see your doctor if you are feeling – in the least bit – anxious.

10 Ways You Can Reduce the Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue and Caregiver Burnout

All these symptoms can adversely impact the caregiver’s ability to provide care. As a result, the care recipient and the caregiver are placed at risk. By reducing the causes of compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout, caregivers can remain healthy.

Being mindful of the need to care for oneself is an important first step. Here are some ways in which you can maintain good health while serving as a caregiver:

  1. Eat good food. Feeding your body properly can be compared to filling your vehicle’s gas tank. With the suitable amount and type of fuel, your vehicle can continue to run for a great distance. With healthy and nutritious food, you can also better operate. Keep these recommendations in mind when you are planning your next meal:
    • Snack on fresh fruit. Fruits are rich with important vitamins and minerals. These will help you feel full and give you additional energy.
    • Eat fresh vegetables. Spinach, a popular super food, is exceptionally high in nutrients.
    • Add beans to your menu. Beans are a protein and a complex carb, both of which provide energy to your body.
    • Enjoy nuts. Almonds are one of the best nuts you can eat. Almonds contain healthy fats, fiber, protein, magnesium and vitamin E. Eating almonds has also resulted in lower blood sugar levels, blood pressure and cholesterol.
    • Spoon out a daily bowl of yogurt. Mix low-sugar granola with yogurt or blend fresh or frozen fruit with yogurt into a shake. Yogurt is full of calcium and magnesium which supports energy production.
  2. Get a full night’s sleep. If you find yourself staying up late to finish a caregiving task, you’re not doing anyone any favors. Don’t subtract from sleep time to get things done. Being sleep deprived will lead to much lower personal energy and productivity. Get more sleep by:
    • Napping when your loved one naps. This way, you won’t be worried about if they need someone while you are asleep.
    • Creating a routine. We respond best to habits. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. A predictable sleep schedule is one of the most beneficial ways you can adopt.
    • Avoiding caffeine in the evening hours. Coffee is the most familiar caffeine-rich drink but there are other foods, beverages and even medications to steer clear of as well.
    • Turning off all electronic devices an hour before going to bed. This will give your brain a chance to rest before you ask it to fall asleep.
  3. Move. Physical activity can help immensely to reduce compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout. To help burn off rising stress, try the following:
    • Take a leisurely stroll through the park. Invite your loved one to go with you if they can. The exercise will do you both good!
    • Visit the local gym for a more hardcore workout. There are many options for classes, from yoga to dance to kickboxing. Having a class to attend may keep you more accountable and allow you to block off your schedule.
    • Mow the lawn or shovel the sidewalk. This way, you check something off your list while getting some physical activity in.
  4. Don’t go at it alone. As a caregiver, you cannot provide care and juggle all of life’s responsibilities without support. Make sure to:
    • Take a break. Whether it is an hour, a day, or a week, take time off from caregiving. It isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity if you are going to protect yourself against compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout.
    • Maintain friendships. Keep in touch with your friends. If you can’t go out for coffee, have regular phone calls or quick texting conversations.
    • Talk to other caregivers. These will be individuals who are travelling a similar path as you. Other caregivers can understand, support and provide advice.
    • Hire outside help. This can become pricey, but the extra expense for an extra set of hands may be worth it. Remember, your hired help can remain with Mom/Dad while you get respite or run errands.
  5. Ask friends and family members to step in. See if they can care for your loved one for a few hours so you can have some time off.
    • Get respite care. Check out local adult day cares or home care agencies for respite care services. This could mean having your loved one attend classes, participate in a day program, or receive care from a professional caregiver.
  6. Find a means of coping. Focusing on something else – even for the short term – can also prove to be very effective with reducing compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout. What you choose to do is up to you. A few methods of coping include:
    • Remembering a childhood passion and pursue it. Perhaps you liked to draw when you were young? Pick up the pencil and sketching pad again. Buy art books to learn more about the subject. Register for a drawing class to practice and improve your technique.
    • Keeping a journal. As a writer, I can speak to the benefits of writing things down. By recording your caregiving thoughts and feelings, you can explore what you are experiencing more deeply. Journals can be kept private, shared, or even destroyed.
    • Living in the moment. It can become very discouraging for a caregiver to think ahead and face a loved one’s further decline. Instead, try to focus on “today” instead of “tomorrow”. Did mom or dad have a particularly “good” day. I relished the days when my Dad had the energy and interest to accompany me on a walk or showed some signs of recognizing me.
    • Learn to say “no” more often. Some caregiving tasks require your immediate attention; however, others do not. If something is not pressing and is too much to handle, it’s perfectly acceptable to politely decline or postpone doing this until your energy returns.
  7. Get organized. Caregivers can be stressed trying to manage day-to-day responsibilities. Looking for needed information can add to that frustration. Keep everything organized by:
    • Using your cell phone’s calendar app. Easily record reminders, even on the go.
    • Creating a caregiving contact list. This includes everyone involved with your loved one’s care. Include their phone numbers, e-mail addresses and office addresses. Post a copy of your contact list on your refrigerator door at home. Distribute copies to your siblings.
    • Using a wall calendar. Choose a style with large daily boxes to write in appointments and so on. Daytimers can be more portable for on-the-go caregivers. These come in many styles and sizes.
    • Creating a simple organizational system. Keep important paperwork at your fingertips. A business card holder can store all your collected business cards (from your senior’s lawyer, realtor, financial planner, and so on) in one place.
  8. Remain positive. Undoubtedly, caregiving can be challenging, but it can help to smile. Share a laugh with someone by doing a few of the following:
    • See a comedian.
    • Watch a funny television show or movie.
    • Play with young children or a pet.
    • Share jokes.
    • Read upbeat stories.
  9. Share some time with your partner. Caregivers can be prone to focusing excessively on their loved one and overlooking their other significant relationships.
    • Reserve a quiet table for two at a restaurant.
    • Book a couple’s massage.
    • Play a relaxing game of cards.
    • Work on a crossword puzzle together.
  10. Do housework. Begin with small tasks and be spurred on to bigger projects. By completing housework, you can effectively reduce compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout as well as be productive!
    • Vacuum.
    • Load/unload the dishwasher
    • Reorganize the Tupperware cupboard.
    • Clean out the refrigerator.
    • Purge the basement storage room.
    • Dust the shelves.
    • Donate/discard unwanted clothing.
    • Scrub out the bathtub.
  11. Be realistic. Family, work and caregiving demands may not leave you a lot of time to go shopping or engage in other activities you enjoy. Find realistic ways to squeeze in time for yourself:
    • Leave work a bit early and stop at your favorite coffee shop.
    • Visit your local bookstore on the way home.
    • Treat yourself to take-out instead of making dinner.
    • Book a manicure or pedicure for both you and your loved one.

Ignoring your need to take time off can be easy in the moment, but recharging can result in being a better and more effective caregiver in the long-run. Doing so becomes essential to preventing the effects of compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout.

About the Author(s)

As a former co-caregiver, Rick Lauber helped and supported his own aging parents. His mother had Parkinson's and Leukemia and his father had Alzheimer's. Rick learned that caregiving is challenging and used writing to personally cope.

His stories became two books, Caregiver's Guide for Canadians and The Successful Caregiver's Guide.

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