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Coping with Dementia: Compassion Fatigue

By Debbie Selsalvage Posted on June 2, 2021

Suddenly, my care partner support groups are devoting a lot of conversation to “compassion fatigue.”

Compassion Fatigue is the care partner’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; the response to overwhelming stress caused by the difficulty of a task, especially when we are cut off from resources and respite, as we have been during this time of COVID. 

Compassion fatigue is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of inadequacy, self-contempt, weight loss or gain, headaches, a reduced ability to concentrate, and even the loss of empathy for the loved ones who require our care. 

The phenomenon was first recognized among medical workers in Vietnam, and the term “compassion fatigue” was coined in 1992 by Carla Joinson who observed and wrote about compassion fatigue and nurses’ experience with it. 

But unlike battle fatigue, compassion fatigue can bring a unique burden of guilt and self-loathing.  “How can I become fed-up with caring for someone I love?  There must be something wrong with me; something lacking in my basic moral character or sense of humanity!”  Asking ourselves these questions, we plunge ourselves into a downward negative spiral taking us to a place where we are no use to ourselves or the loved ones we are caring for.

Compassion Fatigue for Dementia Caregivers is Real

The first step in dealing with compassion fatigue is to understand it and recognize when and why it appears.  No, you are not a bad person.  You are experiencing a predictable, common, and well documented phenomenon. What you are feeling may be frightening and awful, but it is normal. Be kind to yourself.

Do not conclude, “I must not be caring enough. I’ll just have to try harder and do more of what I’m doing.”  To the contrary, it is time for a break from what you’ve been doing.  Again and again, your support group has talked about the things you need to do to take care of yourself.  Now is the time to stop just talking about those things, and start doing them.  Ask for some help. This is necessary to your survival.

Find support that can help you get away from your task and your person for a while.  You may need more than just an hour here and there, but some days away from being a care partner. 

Write a journal about yourself and your feelings.  Writing your thoughts and feelings can improve your perspective, help you realize how hard you’ve worked, and justify what you are feeling.  Exercise. Adopt a healthier diet. Document your self-care behaviors in your journal.  Get a lot of rest.  Do not self-medicate.  

There is a lot of information about compassion fatigue on the internet.  Let me suggest https://www.aafp.org/fpm/2000/0400/p39.html.

You are not alone.  I doubt that I know many care partners who are NOT experiencing compassion fatigue to some extent during this difficult time in our lives.  The important thing is to prevent progress into a danger zone!

And remember my favorite slogan: “We all deserve the best!”  

About Debbie Selsavage

Debbie Selsavage is a Certified Trainer and Consultant in the Positive Approach to Care and a Certified Dementia Practitioner.  She authors a monthly column to assist caregivers in coping with Dementia. Her company, Coping with Dementia LLC is dedicated to making life better for individuals living with dementia.  Contact Debbie at [email protected].

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