Self-Care for Caregivers: Tips for Preventing Burnout

caregiver burnout

When you are caregiving for seniors, whether a professional caregiver or one who has chosen that role to take care of a family member, you’re at risk of burnout. Experts don’t mince words when talking about caregiver burnout; in 2007, the term “caregiver syndrome” was described by neuropsychiatrist Jean Posner as “a debilitating condition brought on by unrelieved, constant caring for a person with a chronic illness or dementia.” 

Just How Bad is Burnout?

According to a survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, the number of unpaid caregivers in the United States rose from 43.5 million in 2015 to 53 million in 2020. That’s a lot of people facing the possibility of serious psychological, emotional, and physical issues from the toll that caregiving can take. That same report found that 36% of those surveyed described their situation as “highly stressful” and that 7% saw a drop in their health. In November 2021, a study from Genworth (an insurance firm) reported 30% of caregivers suffered from sleep deprivation while 42% dealt with depression, mood swings, or even resentment.

This makes it clear that caregivers need care too.

What Does Burnout Look Like?

When you’re engaged in caregiving for seniors, there will likely come a point where you feel as though you’ve had enough. You can’t concentrate, you feel helpless or hopeless, and you are tired all the time. Here are some of the most common signs of caregiver burnout:

·         Your energy levels are surprisingly low.

·         You’re feeling bone-deep fatigue, the kind that makes you want to sleep all the time.

·         Speaking of sleep, you’re either getting too much or too little.

·         You’re gaining weight, or losing it, because your appetite isn’t what it used to be.

·         You feel helpless or hopeless much of the time.

·         You don’t engage in activities that once restored you.

·         You feel like your life is controlled by caregiving; that’s all you do.

·         You neglect your emotional needs, like crying instead of talking to a friend.

·         You neglect your physical needs too, such as skipping showers or eating properly.

·         You are suddenly overwhelmed with anxiety about the future.

·         Depression or mood swings have become your default setting.

·         Impatience, irritability, or the need to argue are common.

·         Physical issues arise like constant headaches, stomach pain, or muscle aches.

·         You get sick very easily and often.

·         Everyday things can overwhelm you.

What Brings On Caregiver Burnout?

It might not seem as though you are getting burned out, mostly because it happens quite gradually. It is rare to wake up one morning feeling severely depressed; rather, it creeps up on you, and before you know it, you’re having trouble getting up in the morning. The following things slowly take a toll:

·         Your time is limited, as you’re dealing with your usual responsibilities on top of the senior care plan for your loved one.

·         Everyone needs a piece of you. Your family members, your loved one, your work, your friends and extended family, and many others – leaving no time for you.

·         You might not have control over finances, which can be frustrating.

·         You might not feel qualified or have the skills to give the best care. This can easily make you feel as though you are failing.

·         You’re dealing with multiple roles at once: For instance, if you are a caregiver to an elderly mother, family lines can blur as the child tends to the parent.

·         You might feel as though the demands of caregiving are unreasonable, especially if you have no training for this kind of work.

·         Depending upon the care your loved one needs, you might have little privacy.

·         Asking for help from others might seem to get you nowhere.

·         It can be tough to watch someone who has a progressive disease go through decline. No matter how good your caregiving skills are, you can feel helpless that you can’t do more.

Examples of Burnout

Not sure that you’re dealing with caregiver burnout? You might be surprised. Here are a few examples of what burnout might look like.

·         You have hired a respite worker to sit with your father while you go to a movie with your best friend. It’s the first time you’ve done something like this in six months! You’re excited at first, but then the anxiety rises up, and you feel guilty for leaving your father alone. You become so wound up by the worries about what is happening at home that you can’t enjoy your time out. Later, you feel resentful because that time was “wasted” on the worries.

·         You are usually an easy-going person, but this morning your son closed the door a little too hard – not on purpose! – and you lashed out at him. The sudden irritability made him snap back at you, and an argument exploded out of nowhere. Now as you stand in the bathroom fighting back tears, you wonder where that explosion came from.  

·         You are talking on the phone, trying to sort out the latest medical bills that make little sense. You’re trying hard to hold your temper. The dog needs to go out, it’s almost time to make lunch (and you have no idea what you’ll make), you have emails to respond to, and the representative puts you on hold one more time – and as soon as you hear the hold music, you burst into tears.

These things might happen now and then, but they shouldn’t be happening all the time. If they are, you’re on the fast track to burning out under the caregiver burden.

How to Prevent Burnout

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Here are some great ways to avoid caregiver burnout.

·         Invest in senior life-saving alert systems for the home. An emergency medical alert for your loved one can provide peace of mind to everyone. If you are out running a brief errand or simply in another part of the house, the button alarm pendant or wristwatch can be the saving grace if your loved one has some sort of emergency. For even more peace of mind, choose medical alert systems with fall detection.

·         Never hesitate to ask for help. It can be tough to ask for help, but it’s vitally important to reach out if there is someone who can ease the burden for you.

·         Make a point of eating healthy foods. When you get busy, you tend to reach for what’s fast – and that means either unhealthy snacks or fast food. Invest in yourself with plenty of fruit and veggies at the ready.

·         Learn to delegate. Got too much to do to get out to the grocery store? Call up that friend who offered to help. Need to get the oil changed in the car? Maybe your teenager or your spouse can handle that.

·         Look into family leave benefits. If you are working outside the home, time gets much more constricted. Look into family leave benefits and find out what you’re eligible to use.

·         Find a support group. Being among people who understand what you’re going through can lift an enormous weight from your tired shoulders. Seek out caregiver support through local hospitals, nursing homes, and similar places, or look for them online.

·         Set short term goals. Set small goals you know you can reach. For example, doing the dishes, or sorting medications, or cleaning a window. Checking even small things off your list can make you feel empowered.

·         Use respite care. Even if it’s a few hours out of the house, take full advantage of it. Know that your loved one is in excellent hands and allow yourself to take a deep breath and enjoy that movie, book, or drive around town. The National Respite Locator can help.

·         Educate yourself. Understanding the progression of a particular illness or disease can help alleviate some of the shock you might feel when a loved one takes a turn for the worse. It can also remind you that there is only so much you can do in the face of this challenge.

·         Don’t downplay your struggle. Caregiving for elderly parents or relatives can be a joy. But it can also be impossibly hard. When someone asks how you are, don’t brush it off with a bright smile and say you’re fine. Be honest and remember that those who care about you want to help make your burden a little easier to carry.

·         Get a medical alert with GPS. If you are the caregiver to someone who likes to travel– or if you are taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s, who might be prone to wandering – a medical alert pendant with GPS can ensure that they are always a simple button push away from help.

·         Accept the way you feel. You might want to beat yourself up over feeling anger, resentment, impatience, and a whole host of other negative emotions from time to time. But remember that these are all natural emotions, and it is ok to feel them.

·         Keep a gratitude journal. Every day, write down five things you’re grateful for. Some days, this might seem hard to do – so something as simple as “I woke up this morning” is enough. On other days, you’ll have a long list. The idea is to write it down and look back on it later when you need a boost.

·         Create a simple way to communicate. Sending emails to everyone can be tiring, but sending out a blast on social media can be too much. Find a good balance by sending out one email with updates to everyone on your list, and leave it at that.

·         Consider medical alert technology for yourself. If you are the sole caregiver to someone who has trouble with mobility or dementia, and no family or friends who stop by on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to be able to reach emergency services from wherever you are. For instance, if you experienced some sort of emergency, suddenly both you and your loved one are in danger. A medical alert device can help you avoid that scenario.

·         Tell your doctor what is happening. Speak to your physician about the fact that you’re a caregiver and express your feelings about that. It can help your doctor understand why your blood pressure might be up, or why your weight might be down, and many other things.

What Happens Next?

There could come a time when you are simply can’t continue to give your loved one the care they need. Perhaps their condition has progressed to a point where outside help is necessary. You might be dealing with someone who has become combative or needs much more serious medical care. Maybe what was once easier to handle now feels impossible. It might be time to consider getting professional caregivers to come in and help you with the day-to-day work of taking care of your parent, spouse, or other loved one.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself. You’re taking on a rewarding yet very difficult job, and that work can get harder as time goes on. You’re human – you will make mistakes, you will become upset, and you will need a break. None of these things make you anything less than the wonderful person you are. Remind yourself of that, cut yourself some slack, and try to find some time each day to regroup and recharge. Wishing you peace and health.