According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, there are approximately 43.5 million caregivers providing support and assistance to an elderly, disabled, or chronically ill loved one. If you're one of them, you may be suffering from caregiver burnout and not even realize it. Here are tips for recognizing and preventing caregiver burnout.
When you're a caregiver, you tend to put yourself last and your patient or loved one first. Attending to your caregiver duties is your primary focus, and generally your patient or loved one demands all your attention, verbally or otherwise. But it is important to remember that your health and your needs matter too, especially if the person you are a caregiver for lives under the same roof as you. It is important to get away and take time for yourself.
Definition of Caregiver Burnout
Caregiver burnout occurs when debilitating physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion affects your ability to provide care. Disruptions in your family or work life and financial pressures can pile up until it becomes difficult to take care of yourself, as well as someone else. Often, caregivers struggle along, waiting for someone to recognize the situation and step in to help, but it is important for caregivers to learn about recognizing and preventing caregiver burnout as early as possible, and take steps to stop it from happening in the future.
Symptoms of Caregiver Burnout
The symptoms of caregiver burnout may develop slowly and increase as your loved one's health deteriorates. You'll need to be aware of them in order to prevent caregiver burnout.
The symptoms of caregiver burnout may include:
- Feeling irritable, hopeless, and depressed
- Isolation or withdrawal from family and friends
- A lack of interest or participation in activities you previously enjoyed
- Sleeping too much or too little (insufficient sleep may be the result of stress, or because you are frequently awakened throughout the night)
- Increased or excessive use of alcohol or sleep medications
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Irritability, self-destructive feelings, mood swings, or anger against the person for whom you are caring: Feeling angry with your situation is a natural response, but that doesn't mean that it is ok to be angry at the person who is sick. S/he doesn't want to be in this situation either. If you are angry, and especially if you're taking your anger out on the people around you, it's time for a break.
- Anxiety: You can't explain it other than you always feel anxious. This can take a very physical form as an anxiety or panic attack, or you might just be nervous all the time. If you can't seem to relax your mind or body, it's time to take a time-out.
- Frequent illness or health problems: Your immune system doesn't respond well to extreme stress, so if you are stressing out you are more likely to catch colds or the flu. You might also get heartburn or headaches.
Preventing Caregiver Burnout
Here are some suggestions to help you in preventing caregiver burnout:
- Get help. It may be difficult to ask for help, but nobody should have to do this job without some support. How do you ask for help? Call a family meeting and calmly state what needs to be done. Make it clear that either someone needs to do these tasks, or you will need to hire help in order to get everything done. Family meetings can become emotional. Avoid rehashing old grievances. If someone chooses to pay for additional help rather than provide the caregiving personally, that's okay. Accept whatever form of help is offered.
- Break the caregiving tasks into categories. Then give each person a responsibility, no matter how small, to help spread out the tasks. Perhaps one person can pay the bills and handle the finances. Another could manage medical care and medications. Even a family member who lives far away can make regular phone calls or provide occasional respite care. In this way, each person can manage the details of a task and keep others advised of problems or changes. Good communication among family members is critically important. You can't assume everyone will know how you are doing. Group emails, texting, or video chats can relieve you of repeated calls and explanations, as well as ensuring that everyone is getting the same information.
- Friends and neighbors often want to help, but do not know what you need. Tell them. They can pick up groceries, help take care of pets, or give you a short break.
- When others do try to help, don't be a control freak. Nobody will put the dishes away or fold the laundry precisely the way you or your loved one want it. But if you obsess about the details, people may feel you are making matters unnecessarily stressful and change their minds about helping you.
- Often people who take on the role of caregiver have unrealistic expectations. They may believe that diligent care or good nutrition may solve problems and make their loved one happy. It is best to start with a clear understanding of your loved one's mental and physical condition and identify realistic goals.
- When you have a chance to take a break, do something nice for yourself. Go to the movies. Spend an hour in the coffee shop. Take a yoga class, meditate, or do whatever you long to do.
- Take care of your own health. Eat properly, exercise, get enough sleep, and visit your doctor regularly.
- If you have a job, inquire about family-leave benefits. If you are juggling a job and caretaking duties, you may decide to quit your job. But before you sacrifice your career, think about what effect it will have on your finances, including lost wages and retirement benefits. Then make an informed decision.
- Check out local emotional support groups for caregivers. Others who are on the same road may have practical suggestions to make your life easier, including options and resources such as respite care. Just sharing your frustrations can bring relief.
Being a caregiver is hard, but that doesn't mean you need to completely turn yourself over to your new role. Find someone to talk to, either a doctor or a good friend. Seeking help through a counselor can be one way to pour your emotions out and find solutions to help you keep some of your life along with caregiving. Finally, keeping other family members involved is crucial. If nobody else can step in to the role of caregiver, you'll never be able to take a break.
There is no benefit in doing this alone. Get help and accept help when it is offered.
It is easy to focus all your attention on the needs of your loved one. Don't forget to assess your situation and make necessary changes to keep yourself physically and emotionally healthy. Remember, good caregiving and preventing burnout starts with taking good care of yourself.
For more information or resources to support caregivers or those they care for, please click here to learn about care coordination services.