I was recently invited to speak to a beautiful, faithful group of brilliant Stephen Ministers about self-care. What an opportunity to connect with other folks that “speak my language” of holding a servant’s heart! 

Not wanting to miss the impact of this moment, I reflected. OK, self-care … hmm … how to boil that down into a feasible 45-minute chat?  I quickly sensed a whisper to focus on the topic of compassion fatigue.

Compassion what?

Yes, compassion fatigue – a significant, powerful construct. Our buddies at Merriam-Webster define this 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.”

Compassion fatigue has also been described as “the cost of caring.”

Wait a minute … I think I may have experienced this before.

I’m looking at you, fellow community care partners. I’m also speaking for the most incredible group of people in this counselor’s world – our Memory Matters’ caregiver clients.

Some of us innately feel empathy for others – we can easily imagine what another person may be thinking or feeling. For others, especially those caregiving for a loved one with dementia, they must learn to tap into a place of empathy for survival as they strive to break through the veil of a family member’s cognitive impairment.

The further challenge? Empathy can easily cross into a place of compassion fatigue if one is not careful. Warning signs of this slippery slope may include: escalating irritability, poor sleep, impaired humor, increasing negative thoughts, withdrawal, emotional numbness, impatience, attitude changes, and low motivation (just to name a few!).

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I don’t know if I can deal with this person right now” or “I really need some time to myself” or “I would love to just run away”? If you relate to this, you have likely experienced compassion fatigue.

Whoa … this hits home! So, what can I do?

Before engaging with others who might tap your empathy, I encourage you to do a quick scan of yourself. What’s your attitude? Positive and open? Hot or cold? Another way to assess yourself quickly: Are you coming into a situation with a “full tank” or “on fumes?”

As the saying goes, you can not fill others up from an empty cup.

There are numerous ways to prevent and/or cope with compassion fatigue. Figure out and set your limits. How much of yourself are you willing to give to another?

Give yourself permission to say no. This can be really hard to do but is oftentimes necessary. It’s OK not to put yourself last!

Practice wellness: good nutrition, rest, exercise, talking with friends. Take some breaks – meditate, journal, dance in your kitchen, sing in your car – block out chunks of “me time” on your calendar. Choose activities that fill your cup!

And, as always, if you or a loved one need any support, please contact Memory Matters at 843-842-6688.

Ashley Gruber has been with with Memory Matters since she was a graduate intern. Now a licensed professional counselor intern, she also serves as a dementia care specialist.