July 27, 2020

During these unusual and uncertain times, more and more people are being called to serve as caregivers — and that means that more people than ever are experiencing the stress, burnout, and “compassion fatigue” that can come with devoting so much of yourself to others. 

Caregiving and Compassion Fatigue During COVID-19

Caregiving can be stressful under the best of circumstances, and it is being made even tougher in the age of COVID-19. 

Right now, millions of people here in Chicago and around the country are dealing with a neverending deluge of frightening news stories, uncertainty, and confusion. Many of our homes have become 24/7 gyms, classrooms, and restaurants — and all while social distancing measures make it harder to go to the doctor, visit with friends, or stay in touch with loved ones. 

Meanwhile, we’re all focusing on washing our hands, sanitizing our cars and households, and stocking up on supplies, often without ever getting the chance to “unplug” or take a break. 

And for all of the family caregivers who must now keep all of these plates spinning while also supporting an elderly loved one? Well, it’s easy and understandable if you start to feel stressed and overwhelmed. Over time, this stress can make the noble and important act of caregiving begin to feel even more challenging. This, in turn, leads to guilt and anxiety about not being enough of a caregiver — which often leads to even more stress, and makes keeping up with your responsibilities feel even more daunting. 

This is an easy cycle to fall into, and a difficult one to escape. 

When this happens, caregivers can experience what’s known as compassion fatigue, which writer and caregiving Anthony Cirillo defines as: 

“…the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time. It is not an aberration or a mental illness, just the normal human reaction to experiencing traumatic events over a period of time.”

Even simpler? As Cirillo puts it: “You can care too much.” 

The Effects of Compassion Fatigue

Maybe you’ve heard the old expression that “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” Over time, the stress involved with caregiving can be emotionally, mentally, and physically draining — especially for “Sandwich Generation” caregivers who must balance the demands of caregiving with raising a family or maintaining a career. 

Over time, many family caregivers report experiencing stress and burnout, which can in turn make them feel irritable, tired, or anxious. At the same time, many caregivers have the tendency to put the health and well-being of their loved ones above their own, and put off seeing the doctor, getting exercise, or getting enough rest as a result. 

In time, this can make it more likely that you’ll suffer from compassion fatigue, which can come with physical, emotional and spiritual symptoms, as Cirillo explains. Physical exhaustion may result in “weight loss or gain, gastric distress, insomnia and aches and pains,” while emotional fatigue can cause “outbursts, relationship problems, and racing thoughts.” Above all, this fatigue can result in a “spiritual loss of meaning,” where one’s “original call and joy of caregiving becomes a task without meaning.” 

“Somehow,” Cirillo writes, “a connection with one’s soul is lost.”

Hitting these walls can make it harder to really be there for your loved one, when they need you most. 

How Caregivers Can Manage Compassion Fatigue

If you’re feeling tired or burnt out from caregiving, know that you’re not alone — and there are many ways to get help, rediscover your zeal for caring, and help ensure that your loved one always gets the support they need to live life to the fullest. 

For Dr. Eric Gentry, the way to overcome compassion fatigue is to rediscover the joy of caregiving, and reframe compassion fatigue as “compassion resilience” — “the ability to maintain your physical, emotional and mental well-being while responding compassionately to the suffering of others.”

Ready to manage your feelings of stress and exhaustion around caregiving in the era of coronavirus? Here are a few important things for family caregivers to keep in mind: 

Practice Self-Care

When you fly on an airplane, you may hear the flight attendant encourage passengers to put on their own oxygen masks, before trying to help their seatmates. This same principle goes in other aspects of life: You are better equipped to care for others if you first take care of yourself. 

For caregivers, “self-care” is all about giving your mind and body a well-deserved break from the demands of providing care — and the very real effects of compassion fatigue. 

It’s important for family caregivers to take time for themselves. This may mean finding a restful and restorative hobby that has nothing to do with caregiving — such as reading, hiking, or painting. It may mean blocking off more time to spend with friends. It certainly means making time to eat well, get enough sleep, and stay physically active. 

You should never feel guilty or ashamed about making time for yourself. It is one of the best things you can do in the long run not only for yourself, but for the people in your care. Ultimately, taking some simple steps to care for your own health and well-being can allow you to give more to your loved ones, by making sure you can approach caregiving with fresh eyes and an open heart. 

Acknowledge Your Limits, and Show Yourself Compassion

Many caregivers have deep wells of patience, flexibility, and empathy for others — practicing compassion which they ultimately do not find it as easy to show to themselves. Guilt, anger, sadness, and frustration are common feelings among caregivers. When these emotions crop up, look for healthy ways to manage and face them. 

Often, Cirillo and Gentry note, the first step is to simply acknowledge “that one is experiencing the symptoms of compassion fatigue,” and to “speak out and be heard.” It is important to acknowledge your limits, set healthy and productive boundaries, and to learn to say “no.” Taking care of yourself does not mean that you’re “not good enough.” Instead, it’s a way to give yourself the space and grace you need to grow and learn. 

Reach Out for Help

As Cirillo puts it: 

“Cultural and societal taboos often prevent caregivers from openly admitting, even to themselves, that there may be a problem. Caregivers are skilled at burying their emotions. They’re fearful of ridicule or being shamed.”

These feelings can make it incredibly hard to reach out for the help you need. Remember that getting help isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. It’s a way to show your commitment to caregiving and the people you love, while also giving yourself the chance to rest, recharge, and protect your own health and well-being. At the same time, remember that “help” can come in many forms — including local delivery and meal services that can make things easier for your loved one; support groups and mental health services designed for caregivers; and home care services, which can help give seniors the support they need to safely and independently age in place, while giving family caregivers the opportunity to enjoy some well-deserved respite. 

Companions for Seniors Is Here for You

Curious about what more you can do to adapt to caregiving during the COVID-19 pandemic?  Looking for help and support in providing care for your senior loved one as they age in place, or transition back home from an assisted living facility? 

Whenever you need a sympathetic ear or a home care partner you can depend on, Companions for Seniors is here to help.

Our mission is to help senior adults lead active and enriched lifestyles, by connecting them with their community and helping them to nurture meaningful relationships. Our trained and bonded companions are passionate about empowering the elderly to live more independently,  in the comfort and safety of home. 

Companions are available on flexible, accommodating schedules to spend time with the senior in your life. Whether your loved one needs transportation services, a helping hand around the house, or just a friendly face to play games and swap stories, our caregivers can help give your senior loved one the personalized attention and support they need – while giving family members the valuable chance to rest and recharge.

Have any questions? Curious about how to set up a personalized care plan for the aging adult in your life? Get in touch online or give us a call at 866-910-9020 to get the conversation started!