I’ve never really thought of myself as a caregiver in the traditional sense. I’ve watched family members care for one another as my grandparents aged and watched Kelly’s grandpas transition to caregivers as their wives developed dementia. My dad works in elder care, so I’ve heard many stories of professional caregivers and the countless hours of time they put in caring for folks who need it most. And it wasn’t until Kelly started exploring the idea of self-care for herself that it hit me: I am a caregiver. But not in the traditional sense of taking care of someone who is no longer able. What I mean is that I am her emotional caregiver.
But what exactly does it mean to be an emotional caregiver and, maybe more importantly, what is a caregiver supposed to do to keep him or herself healthy?
The first, and somewhat surprising concept I came across as I began research was compassion fatigue. An article written on the Huffington Post supposed it be might more accurate to refer to it as empathy fatigue. While I have a pretty good idea of what this probably means, those of you also doing research on caregiving are in luck because there’s a whole website about compassion fatigue. An article I found (clearly written for a clinical practitioner) on the website describes the effects of compassion fatigue like this:
Compassion fatigue can strike the most caring and dedicated nurses, social workers, physicians and personal support workers alike. These changes can affect both their personal and professional lives with symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, intrusive imagery, loss of hope, exhaustion and irritability. It can also lead to profound shifts in the way helpers view the world and their loved ones. Additionally, helpers may become dispirited and increasingly cynical at work, they may make clinical errors, violate client boundaries, lose a respectful stance towards their clients and contribute to a toxic work environment.
If you’re someone who’s constantly required to empathize with someone else, it’s really, really easy to see how exhausting it could be to exercise that emotion all the time. Of course, that exhaustion can seep into all other areas of your life. It seems only natural to think that if you’re regularly empathizing with a loved one—especially if it’s someone you live with—it can be doubly exhausting to keep going in your own daily endeavors.
How to be empathetic
Knowing that empathy can be one of the first characteristic a caregiver may lose when they’re not caring for themselves is a powerful piece of knowledge. That being said, what’s a caregiver supposed to do if they find themselves struggling to empathize with the person they’re supposed to be caring for? The Huffington Post article I initially stumbled upon recommends something relatively counter-intuitive—if you’re experiencing compassion or empathy fatigue, try practicing compassion.
More specifically, caregivers need to practice self-compassion. According to the article, when we experience empathy fatigue, it’s very easy to be hard on ourselves. It may sounds impossible in the moment, but using self-compassion as one practice of self-care may be one of the first steps many of us (myself included) may need to take if we’re to get on the road to a self-care ritual.
I hope this article has been mildly helpful as you walk through your journey with self-care and discovering what it means to your life. I’ve included links to a few resources below, and I’d encourage you to comment here with links of your own.
- Mayo Clinic—Relatively simple explanation of caregiver stress and tactics to help overcome it. Remember, if the caregiver is stressed, he or she can’t provide good care.
- Huffington Post—Idea of empathy fatigue; and that “caregivers just need to be loaded up with compassion.
- Compassion Fatigue Article (PDF)—Speaking of compassion fatigue … assess your own fatigue and some steps to cope
- Spark People