Just a year and a half later and I was done. Even for two weeks after the fact, I was numb – completely drained of emotion, lethargic, and avoiding interaction with others.


Four years as a volunteer at an assisted living community in suburban Philadelphia led to a full-time job as the activities director. Knowing most of the staff and residents before the first day of work gave me a tremendous advantage, but until I spent every day there (that is, 10 to 14 frenetic, mostly break-free hours a day, doing way more than just activities), I had no idea how exhausting the work truly was.

There was no balance in my life. I was giving, giving, giving, and giving some more — and still, I felt I hadn’t done enough. I stayed at work for hours past my “shift.” I tried to solve every problem, tried to please every resident, tried to do the impossible with my one-person department. It was too much.

So, I got a really bad case of what some industry professionals are now calling “compassion fatigue,” a new way of describing burnout.

Caregiver burnout is a popular topic in elder care circles these days, as it should be. But often, the caregiving professionals (people like me — activities directors, CNAs, nurses, etc.) aren’t included in the discussion, aren’t admonished to assess warning signs and take respite as needed. A look at the staff turnover rates in most assisted living communities indicates that, left untreated, compassion fatigue exacts serious consequences.

A survey evaluating staff turnover (a collaborative effort between NCAL, AAHSA, ALFA, and ASHA) revealed the following: 

* Turnover rate for all assisted living employees was 38%

* Turnover rate for noncertified resident caregivers was 46%

* Turnover rate for administrators/executive directors was 13%

* Turnover rate for staff registered nurses was 22%

(Source: Center for Excellence in Assisted Living)

Being paid for the work doesn’t mean you won’t burnout if you don’t get the rest and resources you need. But instead of seeking that rest and those resources, many direct care professionals — who really do love the work — just end up “community hopping.”

Perhaps though, if these über-devoted employees had some extra time off (even if it were unpaid), or took an extended lunch break here and there to reset, or felt they had more support from colleagues, then maybe they would stick around longer, a desirable outcome for everyone involved.

Because you know what else happens when a good employee burns out? Not only does the team lose a key player and residents lose a dependable contact, the quality of care suffers, which is not something any senior living provider desires.


Ideas for Providing Employee Respite Care:

1. Offer training. Many employees might not even know they’re at risk. Offer training sessions on identifying, preventing, and resolving caregiver burnout and you’ll get the double-benefit of educating them to look for warning signs among their peers, too. And, if your facility offers respite care, staff can also encourage family members who seem on the verge of burnout or breakdown to take advantage of that service — another win.

2. Set up mentoring relationships. Every senior care community has veteran employees whose years of experience have buoyed them through the inevitable ups and downs of caring for seniors. Pair them up with new employees and watch the relationships bloom.

3. Give more time off / time-outs. It’s easier to find a little more money in the budget for an extra day off than for placing human resource ads. But if you truly can’t offer additional paid time off, allow unpaid time as needed, or encourage extended breaks on particularly busy or stressful days.

4. Facilitate support group meetings for employees. If it works for family caregivers, why wouldn’t it work for professionals? Give them a safe space to vent, share advice, and cheer one another on. Appoint a trusted professional either within / outside of the community to lead the group, steering the conversations away from gossip, complaints, or inappropriate violations of patient privacy, as needed.

5. Say “thank you” — often. Sometimes, just knowing their work is appreciated gives the boost your dedicated employees need.

Empower, reward, and retain your employees – and watch your turnover rates drop.

Before settling down as a full-time freelance writer, Seitzer spent 10 years serving in various roles at assisted living communities in Pennsylvania and Maryland, then worked for several years as a public policy coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association’s PA Chapters. She also served as a long-distance caregiver for her beloved grandfather, who died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 2009. Seitzer has blogged for SeniorsforLiving.com, which provides information on assisted living, home care, and Alzheimer’s care, since November 2008. She also is the co-moderator of the first #eldercarechat on Twitter, held every other Wednesday at 1 p.m. Eastern Time. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.