If you’re one of 40 million Americans who serve as caregivers for someone who is chronically ill or disabled, then you already know how exhausting that responsibility can be. Mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing, caring for a sick or elderly loved one can eventually wear you down, causing what is known as caregiver burnout. Caregiver burnout is a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion caused by the constant stress and work of caregiving. When someone gives more than they’re able to day in and day out, burnout is the inevitable result. Though burnout can happen to workers, teachers, nurses, and even parents of young children, it is even more likely to happen to caregivers for several reasons.
Why caregivers suffer from burnout at such a high rate
Caring for a loved one can be especially taxing because of the emotional, social, and financial complexities of the caregiving experience. These additional stressors can exacerbate the speed and intensity of developing burnout. These include:
- Role confusion – When children become caregivers to their parents, or one spouse becomes the caregiver for the other, the relationship role that they’ve become accustomed to is suddenly turned on its head. The role reversal is, in itself, a type of loss, with all the complicated emotions and grief involved.
- Help without hope – Unlike nursing someone back to health, where the caregiver is spurred on by visions of a positive future, caregiving for the terminally ill or elderly patients is an exercise in diminishing returns. No matter how hard the caregiver works, the patient’s health will eventually decline. This can drain the motivation of the caregiver, who feels like all their hard work is for nothing.
- Lack of resources – Caregivers are often thrust into the position of caring for a loved one unexpectedly, without time for financial or resource planning. Many caregivers struggle to balance their own lives, responsibilities, and finances with the added burden of caregiving on their plate.
- Unreasonable expectations – It’s a tremendous amount of work to care for an ailing loved one full-time. Many caregivers burn out simply because they think they can “do it all” and hold themselves to impossible standards.
Burnout comes on slowly, manifesting in small changes over time. Caregivers developing burnout often see shifts in attitude and energy level first, with increasing levels of fatigue and disillusionment. They may also suffer from several symptoms including:
- Changes in appetite and weight
- Stomach issues
- Lowered resistance to illness
- Loss of joy
- Feelings of guilt
- Feelings of inadequacy
Why it’s critical to get help when you have caregiver burnout
When you’re responsible for taking care of another person, you must put on your oxygen mask first so you can do your best for the person in your care. When you’re tired, foggy, and grumpy, you simply can’t function at your best, which can even put your loved one at risk if you find yourself forgetting to administer medications or nodding off at important times. If you think you’re suffering from caregiver burnout, you must seek help, both for your sanity and the health of your loved one.
Treatment and prevention of caregiver burnout
If you’re suffering from caregiver burnout, or you want to make sure you keep burnout at bay, there are a lot of things you can do.
- Ask for help – The first and best thing you can do to prevent caregiver burnout is to ask for help. Don’t try to be a hero and do it all yourself. Ask for help from family and friends, or bring in a professional like home health to help, or both. There’s no shame in needing help when you’re carrying the world on your shoulders.
- Accept and express your feelings – Holding your feelings of overwhelm and depression only leaves them to fester and grow. Talk to the people you care about, expressing your feelings and stressors. Talking to a counselor can help, too. Many counselors do online appointments, so you don’t have to even leave this house if it’s difficult to getaway.
- Permit yourself to say “no” – You’re human, and you’re only capable of doing so much. Permit yourself to limit the things you agree to, from chores to social appointments. Whatever you can’t take care of, delegate to someone else.
- Take “me time” breaks – Everyone not only deserves but NEEDS a break now and then. Be just as passionate about your own needs as your loved ones’. Call in a friend, family member, or home health aide to care for your loved one for a few hours so you can get some “me time” to see friends, get a massage, go to a museum, or whatever makes you feel refreshed.
- Don’t let yourself get isolated – It’s easy to become isolated when you spend the majority of your time caring for a loved one that doesn’t often leave the house. As humans, we are social animals, and we thrive when we have healthy social interactions with others. Be ruthless about your need to be around other people. If you aren’t able to leave the house often, there are many online groups centered around hobbies, interests, religion, and more where you can make friends and get the socialization you need.
- Schedule regular respite care – Respite care gives you a break when you need to get away a few hours of respite care can offer a regular breather for you, so you can decompress and come back even better for the one you love.
You are too important to put on the back burner
The work you do as a caregiver is priceless. Take care of yourself, follow these tips, and make sure you take time to put on your own oxygen mask while you’re doing the incredible work of caring for someone you love.