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.
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.
These symptoms 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, or anger against the person for whom you are caring
- Mood swings or anxiety about the future
- Frequent illness or health problems
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.
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.