“It’s Tuesday night, and Angie just got home from picking up the kids from basketball practice and music lessons, then stopping at the grocery store because she didn’t get to it yesterday. She’s running through the evening’s to-do list: the dog needs to be walked, the laundry folded, dinner made and homework checked. She turns on the oven and that’s when Dad calls. Can he come over for dinner? And can she take him to the doctor tomorrow afternoon? His foot is bothering him again and it’s painful to drive. She says yes to both. When she hangs up, she closes her eyes for a moment, rearranging tomorrow’s schedule in her head. Then she takes a deep breath, and sets another place for dinner.”
Being a caregiver for someone you love is a gift to them, and it can be a blessing to you. But it can also be stressful and exhausting. Over time, you find yourself not feeling like, well, yourself. And it makes caregiving that much harder. Then you feel guilty, because it shouldn’t be this hard because it’s a gift and a blessing…right?
It’s caregiver burnout – and it’s not unusual. With some 34 million Americans providing a weekly average of 24 hours of unpaid caregiving assistance for a family member, you’ll see evidence of it just about everywhere.
Recognizing the Signs of Caregiver Burnout
According to How to Be a Resilient Caregiver, from the Caregiver Consortium, these are some of the signs to look out for:
- Irritability – You snap at people for small things, or lose patience easily.
- Withdrawal – You don’t stay in touch with friends and activities like you used to.
- Fatigue – You’re constantly tired and exhausted.
- Insomnia – You have a hard time getting to sleep, staying asleep or sleep restlessly.
- Apathy – You feel numb and must force yourself to do routine caregiver tasks.
- Appetite Changes – You eat more than you used to, or don’t feel like eating anything.
- Increased Substance Use – Your primary relief is from alcohol, drugs, or smoking.
- Guilt – You think you’re not doing enough, or you feel resentment for how much you’re doing.
In case you’re still wondering if you’re burned out (or getting close to it), take this quick assessment.
During the past week or so, have you:
- Had trouble keeping your mind on what you were doing? Yes / No
- Had difficulty making decisions? Yes / No
- Felt completely overwhelmed? Yes / No
- Felt lonely? Yes / No
- Felt a loss of privacy and/or personal time? Yes / No
- Been edgy or irritable? Yes / No
- Had sleep disturbed because of caring for your relative? Yes / No
- Had a crying spell(s)? Yes / No
- Felt strained between work and family responsibilities? Yes / No
- Felt ill (headaches, backaches, stomach problems or common cold)? Yes / No
How many ‘Yes’ answers did you get? If you got more than one or two, it’s time to take some action on your own behalf.
Over time, caregiving has long-term effects on your health and well-being. If you’re a Baby Boomer caring for aging parents while juggling work and raising your own children, you have an increased risk of depression, chronic illness and decline in the quality of your life.
What to Do About Burnout
So, what can you do to combat or prevent caregiver burnout?
Take care of your body.
You may not feel like you have time, but there are simple things you can do to help you be at your physical best.
- Breathe – Take regular breathing breaks to clear your mind and energize your body. Deep breaths in through your nose, inflating your belly. Exhale slowly through your mouth.
- Drink water – Staying hydrated is important for maintaining your energy levels, mood, and ability to think clearly.
- Eat nourishing food – It keeps your blood sugar and mood stable, and helps your body function properly.
- Sleep – Sleep deprivation affects your mood, concentration, memory and driving. Start some simple, relaxing rituals to help you wind down and get the rest you need.
- Get moving – Dancing while you dust, taking the dog for a walk – just about any physical activity can boost your mood, help you think better, and improve your health.
Take care of yourself.
It may feel like your life and your self have been consumed by caregiving, but you are still you. And you need to nurture your tired, burned-out self with things that nourish your mind and soul.
- Journal – This is a cathartic way to keep track of what’s happening and how you’re feeling.
- Pursue what you enjoy – Make it a priority to engage in your favorite hobbies, or to find a new one. It will help you relax, stimulate your brain and give you a much-needed outlet.
- Have some fun – Comic relief in the movies exists to relieve the tension. It works in real life, too. Watch a funny sitcom, read a humorous book or find silly cat videos online. Whatever makes you laugh is a good thing.
- Stay connected – Social connections are critical to your well-being. Set up a coffee date, talk on the phone, go to the movies. You need the love and support of good friends, so spend time with them.
- Step away – It’s healthy to take some time away from caregiving duties. Some senior living communities offer respite stays, where your loved one can stay at the community for a few days while you take a break. You can also talk with an employer about offering flexibility. Learn more about your options.
There’s one more thing experts say you need to do: Give yourself some credit. You’re not perfect, and some days will be harder than others. But you’re doing something remarkable for another person. That dedication and service really is a gift – and you can be proud of yourself for all that you do.
- Shultz, Richard and Beach, Scott (1999). Caregiving as A Risk for Mortality: The Caregiver Health Effects Study. JAMA, December 15, 1999 – Vol. 282, No.23
- 2015 State of Caregiving
- How to Be a Resilient Caregiver, Caregiver Consortium, 2014