ElderCare Crisis: Caregiver Compassion and Burnout

Caring for the sick can give you high blood pressure and a host of stress related ailments … or it can give your life purpose and true joy. Some people burnout from caring for elderly loved ones and others find it to be a source of energy and motivation. Why?

Why do some collapse while others thrive in the role of caregiver? The difference is in how they think, and more importantly, feel about the person they are giving care to.

In the video below, Matthieu Ricard talk briefly about “empathy fatigue.” When we empathize with others our mirror neurons allow us to vicariously experience the others’ state. Sort of like when you see another person yawn, you feel like yawning. It’s not a conscious decision – but our brains absorb the experience and that triggers a response. That’s just the way our brains are hardwired to learn. Not “monkey-see, monkey-do,” as much as “monkey-see, monkey-feel, monkey may or may not do.”  We learn by watching others and feeling what they feel. (OK, you may want to read this article for more info about how mirror neurons work).

When we see someone with severe back pain, empathy does not cause our backs to twinge in agony … but it can cause us to activate parts of our brains associated with pain. Over time, being around pain and suffering takes it toll on us. This is what Ricard calls “stand alone empathy,” and it is a sure path to burnout.

We instinctively try to guard against the adverse effects of empathy by maintaining emotional distance from our charges. If we don’t get too close we will last longer, we tell ourselves. It makes sense, doesn’t it?

Just Because It Makes Sense Doesn’t Mean It’s True

In Is Compassion Meditation the Key to Better Caregiving? on The Huffington Post Ricard explains that when caregivers in a study added a “powerful feeling of unconditional love and compassion, the negative, distressing aspects of empathy disappeared and were replaced by compassionate courage and a resolve to do whatever they could to soothe others’ suffering. It would therefore seems that there is no such thing as “compassion fatigue,” as burnout is often called, but only an “empathy fatigue” that can be remedied by cultivating compassion.”

Could caring more about the elderly people we serve help us suffer less? It’s an interesting concept.

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