UNO professor and mentees study the effect of compassion fatigue on caregivers

Photo courtesy of Janelle Beadle

Charlotte Reilly

UNO Gerontology Assistant Professor Janelle Beadle and neuroscience major Rachel Brodsky both attended spit camp at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

They didn’t learn how to spit 10 feet like Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie. Instead, they were taught saliva collecting methods and testing protocols.

Brodsky, under the supervision of Beadle, is using hormone data collected through saliva to study responses to unfairness. Beadle is using it to study stress and compassion fatigue in family and professional caregivers of elderly adults. There are both monitoring the hormones cortisol and alpha-amylase, and are collaborating with Dr. Jeff French at UNO, who has extensive experience with neuroendocrine methods.

Brodsky wants to see how the hormone changes when people witness others being treated unfairly.

“There is a lot of research on unfairness geared toward the individual, but it’s pretty new to study the response of witnesses,” Brodsky said.

Beadle received a grant from UNMC’s IDeA Clinical and Translational Research (CTR) Scholar Program funded by the National Institute of Health to study the neural, hormonal and psychological basis of compassion fatigue in caregivers.

“Not only will I be looking at how their compassion fatigue changes over time, but I will also be looking at empathy and whether the brain networks differ in people who experience compassion fatigue and burnout versus those who aren’t experiencing that,” Beadle said.

She is also studying hormones that relate to stress and social bonding, mainly cortisol, alpha-amylase, and oxytocin.

Beadle’s research project relates to her past study on caregivers’ empathy, which Brodsky and her other mentees helped with. She studied how sympathetic caregivers feel towards people in need in their daily life.

“Caregiving is such a stressful experience,” Beadle said. “Some caregivers may experience nightmares, trouble sleeping, or symptoms of depression. In this context, we were trying to see if caregivers’ empathy is similar to people who aren’t caregivers.”

They found that the caregivers reported higher empathy than the non-caregivers. The study was conducted by participants playing an economic game, in which they could choose how much money out of $10 they wanted to give someone. Participants were told they were playing a partner game and were either going to write a note or receive a note from their partner. After interacting with each player, participants rated their emotions and decided how much money they wanted to donate to that player.

“I had the hypothesis going in that the caregivers would experience lower empathy over time because caregiving is very stressful,” Beadle said. “I thought it may affect their ability to feel for others, as a protective mechanism for their wellbeing. I was surprised that they had reported higher empathy than the non-caregivers.”

Beadle and Brodsky hope their research helps reduce caregiver stress and improves resilience. The UNO Gerontology Department has a long history of caregiving research.

“When caregivers are healthy, it positively affects the patients,” Beadle said. “The elderly population is growing, so it is increasingly important to find high-quality caregivers.”

Being a part of Beadle’s research team has solidified Brodsky’s love for neuroscience. It has helped her expand research tools she learned in class because it is a long-term research project. It has also presented her with the opportunity to work with a team and learn from both Beadle and her peers.

“You come to school to learn and gain experience,” Brodsky said. “It is the perfect place to participate in research.”

Anyone who wants to participate in Beadle’s research can (402-554-5961) or email