“I Can’t Deal!” – When Compassion Fatigue Sets In

Written by Musqan Butt

Have you ever woken up in the morning full of energy, joy and strength to tackle the day? Those days you wake up, know it’s going to be a good day, make affirmations for the day to be exactly that and head to work? You then interact with your care recipient and oops! They don’t seem to be in the same mood you are in. They are grumpy, irritable and maybe even stubborn. But hey, it’s so early in the day, you can’t possibly let that get in the way. You continue with your duties, tend to their needs and even when they’re being uncooperative you somehow find it in you to tackle the problem with a smile and utmost understanding.

However, as the day progresses, the zeal, joy and happiness you had in the morning are slowly fizzling out. You are now feeling emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted and you get to the ‘I can’t deal’ mental state. At this point, your care recipient says or asks for something that makes you furious and you suddenly snap at them unwillingly. What happened to the bubbly person who started off the day with the “I can face anything” attitude? What caused your feelings to change? Was it something that happened during the day?

These types of situations are highly common and if not addressed in time, can turn into something worse. If you are a caregiver and you find yourself relating to such a scenario it would be recommendable that you seek some form of support because you might be experiencing what is called compassion fatigue. Pathways define Compassion fatigue as a form of burnout unique to professionals whose work involves caretaking or providing emotional support to others. It happens when a professional becomes depleted from repeated exposure to another person’s chronic adversity or traumatic stress.[1]

If you are a caregiver, whether family or professional, it is highly likely that you are, might have, or possibly will experience compassion fatigue at some point during your caregiving role. Compassion fatigue is a very common state that many individuals, even those outside the caregiving world, experience. This is a state brought on by physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. As you continue to care for an individual you might find yourself suddenly feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the various duties and responsibilities you have to juggle on a day-to-day basis. However, if not dealt with appropriately, compassion fatigue can manifest itself in several ways that might be harmful to both you and your patient. It can lead a caregiver to feel numb to the pain of others, and can also make them wary of providing further care or even lead them to psychologically detach from clients as a defence mechanism.[2]

One of the ways in which compassion fatigue can manifest itself is through reduced quality of care. As the feelings of mental and physical exhaustion grow you might find yourself becoming less and less attentive to the needs of your care-receiver. It might have started off with you snapping at them, then you loathe being around them, you no longer care about their needs or what they require etc. This is neglectful behaviour which is harmful to both the care recipient and the caregiver and can even lead to fatal consequences for the care recipient. For example, if you do not pay attention that you are administering the correct medicines and dosage to your care-recipient or whether they are taking their medications or adhering to doctor’s appointment or their dietary needs. This neglect might lead them to harm or to lose of life. As you find yourself feeling more and more overwhelmed you might begin to slack when it comes to your duties. Eventually, this leads you to become even more frustrated and further feeds into the compassion fatigue you are already experiencing.

On 15th June of every year, the world marks World Elder Abuse Awareness Day which is a day to raise awareness of elder abuse and how to prevent it elder abuse. Elderly abuse is any form of mistreatment or harm that may be carried out on individuals who are above the age of 60 years. Elder abuse is global and comes in many forms including physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse and also neglect.[3] As an individual ages, the natural process of ageing takes over such as limited physical activity, and social and cognitive skills. Ageing adults begin to rely on others and may become troublesome to their loved ones (Christensen, Doblhammer, Rau & Vaupe, 2009).[4] Research[5] has shown that compassion fatigue may lead to abuse of care recipients including elderly persons.

The more the feeling builds, the more other forms of neglect and abuse could possibly come into play. As a result of your frustration and exhaustion, you might find yourself becoming physically violent, possibly threatening to cut off the financial support you are providing the patient and might emotionally abuse them by ignoring their needs, gaslighting them or possibly even threatening and intimidating them. If your patient is above the age of 60 years then that counts as elderly abuse.

It is important to understand that compassion fatigue is a completely normal feeling that many people including caregivers experience. It can be difficult and overwhelming to try to juggle several duties and responsibilities within your caregiver role but also outside it. Frustration and tension may build as you try to keep a healthy balance between your personal life and your caregiver role. Understanding the symptoms of compassion fatigue will allow you as a caregiver to address your feelings so that they do not build into neglect and possibly abuse.

We, at Suruvi-Care for Caregivers, continue acknowledging the challenges and hurdles that caregivers face and continue to provide them with the support they need as they continuously adjust to their caregiver role. If you are a caregiver and you find yourself relating to anything mentioned herein, feel free to reach out to our team of professionals for support to alleviate compassion fatigue and its effects.

[1] https://www.pathways.com/pathways-at-work/blog/compassion-fatigue-vs-burnout#:~:text=Burnout%20Is%20a%20Result%20of%20Job%2DRelated%20Stress&text=Compassion%20fatigue%20is%20a%20specific,others’%20stress%20from%20traumatic%20events.

[2] https://socialworkonline.uky.edu/resources/article/compassion-fatigue-social-work/#:~:text=What%20is%20compassion%20fatigue%3F,the%20people%20they%20are%20helping.

[3] https://www.awarenessdays.com/awareness-days-calendar/world-elder-abuse-awareness-day-2023/#:~:text=June%2015,the%20same%20date%20each%20year.

[4] https://scholarworks.lib.csusb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2325&context=etd

[5] Ibid

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