Most of us who are family caregivers know that while there's often a sense of fulfillment when we provide care for our loved ones, there's also a significant threat of emotional and physical burnout.

What about professional caregivers? How different are they from family caregivers in their ability to provide quality care while protecting themselves from burnout?

Can professional caregivers go home after their often extended shifts and leave their work behind? Or do they, like family caregivers, carry the life and death issues of these vulnerable elders who are a large part of their lives with them even after they leave the facility?

There's no one answer to these questions, of course.

Each professional caregiver, like each family caregiver, has unique coping skills along with individual talents and flaws that can either help, or interfere with, their ability to cope with caregiving stress. That's why counseling for caregiver burnout can be helpful for anyone caring for an elder.

As a family caregiver who, through many years, needed to place several loved ones in a quality nursing home near where I lived, I came to know many professional caregivers well. They treated me with kindness, caring 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 keep going while continually facing 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 caring while observing these skilled and compassionate people.

However, the first and perhaps the most dramatic 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. I then witnessed his illness and decline and became part of his care team. It was a natural progression that I'd gradually grown to accept.

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, the professional, went forward with her day as she provided loving care for her group of elders, but her eyes revealed the unfiltered toll that repeatedly losing people she had grown to care about took on her heart.

Professional caregivers work long shifts, but they do eventually have a chance to go home and, theoretically, shelve their work until the next shift. If they didn't develop some detachment skills, they couldn't keep going back to face the sickness and inevitable death day after day.

Conversely, family caregivers generally haven't honed the skills that can help them detach from their loved one's illness no matter what separates them physically. So yes, professionals likely are a little different than we are.

Yet most professionals care deeply and often struggle if someone they are caring for is in pain or close to death. I'm grateful for those who gave so much of themselves to my family.

Professional caregivers and their own families

Still, it truly is different with one's own family.

There is one speaking event that I remember with great fondness, not only because of the reception I received from a room full of professionals eager to learn what they could from the perspective of a family caregiver, but because of the quiet questions they had for me afterward.

This particular event attracted a substantial line of questioners, but the woman I specifically remember was a social worker I'll call Nancy. This caring, professional woman had advised many family caregivers and helped them through the process of placing a loved one in a nursing home.

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 that she was simply "falling apart." What made the process extra hard, she told me, was that her work friends would say, "You're a professional, for heaven's sake. You do this all the time!"

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Nancy's tears spilled down her cheeks as she said to me, "But this is MY mother. This is different!"

I'm sure that Nancy got through the process of being a family caregiver in the same manner we all do: one day at a time.

Yes, she had more technical knowledge in her area than most of us, but when it came down to her own family, she was just as vulnerable as any family caregiver.

Now, she's likely gone back to her life advising others on how to navigate the painful process of placing loved ones in a nursing home. I'm confident, though, that she is openly showing more compassion than she may have shown before her personal experience. I'm equally confident that the families she counsels feel the difference.

Nancy now understands the pain of a family caregiver deep in her heart.

Caregivers are more the same than different

Regardless of whether a caregiver is a paid professional, a family caregiver, or someone who is both, any person who provides care for vulnerable people they have come to know and care about is going to struggle as they witness the sickness and death of these individuals.

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 need to spread their energy over countless people that they care for, many of whom they grow to love even under distressing conditions. Yet many continue, year after year.

Most hospice workers believe deeply in their mission, and many find that providing the opportunity for people to live their last months, days or hours comforted and pain free is the most life-affirming occupation imaginable. Other professional caregivers often feel the same. They know they can make a difference in people's lives when hearts are raw.

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.