CLEARWATER — As director of pastoral care at Morton Plant Mease in Clearwater, Margie Atkinson has spent a lot of time counseling and comforting caregivers.
Then she became one of them.
Now her hours are filled with working full-time Monday through Friday and devoting her Saturdays to her elderly mother, who resides in an assisted-living facility near Atkinson’s Palm Harbor home. She does her best to reserve Sundays for church and her husband.
“I try to set boundaries for myself, but it doesn’t always work out,” she says. “I wish I could say I have great wisdom to share about finding the right balance.”
Burnout has become so common among the growing number of caregivers in this country that the medical community has given the condition its own name: caregiver syndrome. Numerous studies show that caregivers often neglect their own wellness while caring for loved ones, resulting in stress, anger, fatigue, illness and depression.
And there’s no relief in sight.
According to the American Academy of Geriatric Psychiatrists, one out of every four American families cares for someone over the age of 50. That number is projected to skyrocket as the Census Bureau predicts that more than 71 million Americans will be 65 or older by the year 2030.
On Friday, three local health care institutions are joining forces to put the focus on this harried population with a day-long program to help caregivers learn the art of “self-compassion.”
The 10th annual Healing and Spirituality Conference — sponsored by BayCare Health System, Morton Plant Mease Foundation and Suncoast Hospice — shifts the emphasis from patients to the people who care for them so they can learn how to balance their own needs with the demands of caring for others.
As a professional, Atkinson says she had plenty of knowledge and empathy regarding the rigors of caregiving. But now — with an 80-year-old mother who is battling cancer, and siblings who live out of state — she has a different perspective.
“Advice is easy when you’re on the outside looking in,” she says. “I’m living it now. I care for someone I love deeply, and a lot of that advice goes out the window.”
Keynote speaker Joyce Rupp, a member of the Servants of Mary religious community who has written several books on this topic, says she will draw on several disciplines to give participants the most effective ways to develop self-compassion and reduce stress.
Among them: her own Catholic faith, other Christian traditions, Buddhism and science. She also relies on personal stories people share with her about their experiences.
“I find that the last person people are compassionate to is themselves,” she says. “They give all their time and attention away, and don’t keep anything in return.”
Her goal is to inspire people to believe they are worthy of care and kindness — and when that happens, they become a “healing presence” to others.
“Caregivers need to let go of the ‘If I don’t do this, who will?’ They have to learn that it’s just as important to receive as it is to give,” Rupp says.
Susan Bryant, a hospital chaplain, found herself in the same position as Atkinson 10 years ago.
As a pediatric chaplain, she dealt with daily heartache, giving spiritual comfort to young patients and their families as they struggled with life-and-death issues. She found her own comfort by stopping by her sister’s home after work to play with her young nephews.
And then the unthinkable happened. Her 15-year-old nephew, Ian, was diagnosed with two brain tumors. He died six months later.
“Illness is like a tornado. It lands wherever it lands,” she says. “It didn’t matter how much care I gave him or his family. I was powerless to save him. It twisted my faith in God.”
Compassion fatigue finally won out, she says. She ended up shaving her head in memory of Ian and taking a leave of absence from her job.
In that time, she did a lot of reading, walking on the beach, praying and talking with others. She eventually learned that helplessness is OK, and taking care of yourself is a priority that cannot be ignored.
The lesson she now applies to her life is one that helps her cope in her role as a caregiver.
“Jesus told us to ‘Love thy neighbor as yourself.’ Yet we forget the ‘yourself’ part of it,” she says. “You have to work at it, but in the end, you will be a stronger, more helpful person to others.”