Most of us who are family caregivers know that, while we often experience a sense of fulfillment when we provide care for our loved ones, there’s also a significant risk of emotional and physical burnout. Elder care experts and caregiving veterans urge those new to this role to seek out respite opportunities early on, but many family caregivers are wary of putting their loved ones’ care in a stranger’s hands.

If an adult child or spouse is struggling to care for their parent or significant other, how is it that a professional caregiver would be able to understand this person’s nuanced care needs, devote themselves to meeting them and exercise compassion for their situation? At first glance, a stranger may seem ill equipped to take on this very personal task, but you might be surprised. You may also be surprised to learn that professional caregivers are also at risk for occupational hazards like burnout.

A Family Caregiver’s Experiences with Professional Caregivers

As a family caregiver, I faced the task of placing several loved ones in a quality nursing home near where I lived. Over the years, I came to know many professional caregivers very well. They treated me with kindness and respect, and I did my best to be the type of family member who helped without interfering and respected their professionalism. In many cases, I was stunned by their unwavering ability to power through this difficult job, even as they continually faced the illness, pain and eventual deaths of people they’d grown to care about.

Examples crowd my mind as I write because I saw so much dedication and concern while observing these skilled and compassionate people. However, the first and perhaps most touching experience that comes to mind happened with my uncle’s primary Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Holly. As my uncle slipped over the earthly threshold into eternity, Holly struggled far more than I did with his passing.

I loved my uncle and had terrific memories of him from my childhood and youth. When he fell ill and began to decline, I became part of his care team. It was a natural progression that I’d gradually grown to accept as elders in my family began requiring more and more of my time and assistance.

Although Holly had only known my uncle as a sick and rather cantankerous elderly man, she’d grown to care deeply for him, even during his most difficult times. As he lay dying, Holly would stop by his room every chance she could. She stood by his deathbed with me, tears streaking her face. Holly, ever the professional, went forward with her day as she provided loving care for her group of elders at the nursing home, but her eyes revealed the toll that repeatedly losing people she had grown to care about took on her heart. I’m grateful to Holly and all the other staff members who gave so much of themselves to my family over the years.


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Similarities and Differences Between Family Caregivers and Professional Caregivers

But how do professionals differ from family caregivers in their ability to provide quality care while protecting themselves from burnout? Can professional caregivers go home after their lengthy shifts and leave their work behind? Or do they, like family caregivers, continue to worry about these vulnerable elders even after they leave the assisted living facility or nursing home?

Of course, there’s no blanket answer to these questions. Each professional caregiver, like each family caregiver, has unique talents and flaws that can either help or hinder their ability to cope with caregiver stress. That’s why counseling for caregiver burnout is beneficial for anyone dealing with elder care issues on a regular basis.

Professional caregivers work long shifts, but they do have respite built into their schedules. They get a chance to go home and, theoretically, shelve their work until the next shift. Furthermore, if they didn’t develop some detachment skills, they’d be unable to keep going back to face the sickness and inevitability of death day after day.

These nurses, CNAs, aides and companions may not have the storied history that we family caregivers do with our ailing loved ones, but they do develop relationships with those in their care. It would be difficult not to connect with someone in whom you invest so much time and effort. In fact, some professional caregivers are so invested in their work that they wind up leaving the elder care industry altogether because they feel exasperated and limited by their employers’ policies. Staffing issues are one of the most common sources of dissatisfaction in long-term care settings as overworked and outnumbered caregivers struggle to provide personalized, quality care for every resident.

Conversely, most family caregivers generally haven’t honed the skills that can help them detach from their loved one’s illness, even temporarily. We must also work very hard to not only accept the fact that we need and deserve respite, but also to seek out these opportunities and ensure they are within our means. So yes, professionals are a little different from us. However, we are not the only ones to feel frustrated with the elder care industry or experience burnout. It takes a very special kind of person to be a caregiver, whether they choose this as their profession or step up to care for a loved one. In the end, this role takes a toll on all who fill it.

Professional Caregivers Care for Their Own Families, Too

Still, the emotional toll of elder care truly is different with one’s own family.

I attended a speaking event years ago that I still remember with great fondness, not only because of the warm reception I received from a room full of professionals eager to learn what they could from the perspective of a family caregiver, but also because of the poignant questions they had for me after my presentation.

I answered many questions posed by audience members, but the woman I specifically remember was a social worker I’ll call Nancy. This caring professional had advised countless family caregivers and walked them through the process of placing their loved ones in a skilled nursing facility. But what Nancy wanted to tell me was that she was now going through the process of placing her own mother in a nursing home and the stress of this decision was causing her to fall apart. What made the process extra difficult, she explained, was that her colleagues would say, “You’re a professional for heaven’s sake. You do this all the time!” Tears spilled down her cheeks as she said to me, “But this is MY mother. This is different!”

I encouraged Nancy to get through this process of being a family caregiver in the same manner we all do: one day at a time. Yes, she has more practical knowledge in this area than most of us, but when it came down to her own family, she was still just as vulnerable as any first-time family caregiver.

Now, she’s likely gone back to her life advising others on how to navigate the painful decision of placing loved ones in a nursing home. I’m confident, though, that she is openly showing more compassion than she may have before her own personal experience with this process. I’m equally confident that the families she counsels can feel the difference. Nancy now understands the unique pain of a family caregiver deep in her heart.

Caregiving Unites Us

Regardless of whether a caregiver is a paid professional, a family caregiver or someone who is both, anyone who goes above and beyond to provide care for vulnerable people they have come to know and respect is going to struggle as they witness a senior’s decline.

Family caregivers share a history with their care receiver that may span a lifetime, while a professional caregiver may only have known the person for weeks or months. Family caregivers can concentrate on a small group of loved ones, pouring their energy into providing care for fewer people. Professional caregivers must spread their energy over countless people that they care for, many of whom they grow to love even under distressing conditions. Yet many continue in this line of work, year after year.

Most professional caregivers, especially hospice workers, believe deeply in their mission. Many find that providing the opportunity for elders to live their last months, days or hours comforted and pain free is the most life-affirming occupation imaginable. They know they can make a difference in people’s lives when emotions are running high.

Yes, every person is unique, but family caregivers and professional caregivers share many important attributes. When we pierce the surface of our backgrounds, we are united by the most humanizing of experiences. We are allies in caring for vulnerable people and can support one another as we do our best to serve them.