Most caregivers admit to feeling bursts of fatigue and frustration when caring for a loved one. A lot of worry and energy goes into being responsible for someone else’s well-being, and that means stress and exhaustion are the byproducts.
If you’re experiencing caregiver burnout, here’s how to take care of yourself when you’re taking care of someone else.
What Caregiver Burnout Means
About 1 in 3 U.S. adults are informal caregivers for adult family members, according to estimates from the National Alliance for Caregiving. While taking care of someone you love can be rewarding, the toll of caregiving is very stressful. If you are not a healthcare professional, you may not recognize the signs of caregiver burnout until you’re completely exhausted.
The Cleveland Clinic defines caregiver burnout as a “state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion” accompanied by a negative change in attitude. The emotional symptoms are described as similar to significant depression. Burnout can occur when the burden of care is too much for one person, leading to feelings of hopelessness and overwhelming fatigue.
Other factors that contribute to family caregiver burnout
There are psychological causes that contribute to burnout that are particular to family-member caregivers.
For instance, there can be role confusion if caring for an elderly parent. That can make it difficult to act (or react) appropriately as their caregiver instead of their child. You may place unreasonable demands on yourself or your parent may make unreasonable demands of you. And you might have expectations that can’t be fulfilled, such as making your parent happy all the time or improving their health if a diagnosis makes that impossible.
How to Take Care of Yourself While Taking Care of a Loved One
Consider this: If you get so burned out that you can’t be your loved one’s primary caregiver, who will? If the answer is “no one” that’s a pretty strong case for taking care of yourself.
Here are some ways to reduce caregiver stress, as provided by the Mayo Clinic:
Make a list of specific ways that others can help, and let each person choose what he or she would like to do. Don’t be shy about reaching out to family, your friends, and your family member’s social circle or place of worship.
Find out about resources in your community. Free or low-cost services such as transportation, meal delivery, or housekeeping may be available.
Join a support group for caregivers.
People in caregiver support groups will understand what you’re going through. Groups be a good resource for problem-solving strategies and for meaningful friendships.
Seek social support.
Make an effort to stay connected with the family members and friends who offer nonjudgmental emotional support.
Set personal health goals.
For example, eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of water. Set goals to find time to be physically active most days of the week. Because it’s common for caregivers to have difficulty sleeping, consult with a doctor if you need help setting a good sleep routine.
Take a break
Taking a break each week from your caregiving responsibilities can be one of the best things you do for yourself. Here are potential care sources for your loved one that aren’t you:
1. In-home care
A home care aide can provide care such as bathing, preparing a light meal, or transportation (to a doctor’s office, for example). An aide could give you a break for a few hours a week at a reasonable cost. In 2019, the average cost nationally was $21 per hour. Medicare and Medicaid cover some of the costs of home care aids as well as home healthcare professionals.
2. Community adult care centers and programs
3. Faith-based adult services and programs
Reduce the Guilt to Reduce Caregiver Stress
Experts say that one thing family caregivers have in common is a sense of guilt when doing something for themselves (rather than their ill or elderly loved ones). As almost everyone has experienced, guilt just adds to stress!
Remember the oxygen mask rule.
Before takeoff on an airplane, the in-cabin safety instructions include this one about oxygen masks: “If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first and then assist the other person.” That’s because you’re no good to anyone if you pass out!
The punchline may be an LOL, but the rule is a perfect metaphor for taking care of yourself first if you’re a caregiver. Keep that in mind to ease any guilt you may feel.
Take This Quiz to See if You Have Caregiver Burnout
Caregivers can’t always recognize when they’re suffering from caregiver burnout. AARP has a quiz you can take to find out if you have the symptoms. Even if you’re already taking steps to reduce stress, it’s helpful to know where you are on the continuum and what you may be facing as you continue to act as a caregiver.