Caring for a loved one can be very rewarding, but it also involves many stressors: changes in the family dynamic, household disruption, financial pressure, and the added workload. So is it any wonder that caregivers are some of the people most prone to burnout?
Caregiver stress can be particularly damaging, since it is typically a chronic, long-term challenge. You may face years or even decades of caregiving responsibilities. It can be particularly disheartening when there’s no hope that your family member will get better. Without adequate help and support, the stress of caregiving leaves you vulnerable to a wide range of physical and emotional problems, ranging from heart disease to depression.
When caregiver stress and burnout puts your own health at risk, it affects your ability to provide care. It hurts both you and the person you’re caring for. The key point is that caregivers need care too. Managing the stress levels in your life is just as important as making sure your family member gets to his doctor’s appointment or takes her medication on time.
Learning to recognize the signs of caregiver stress and burnout is the first step to dealing with the problem.
Common signs and symptoms of caregiver stress
Common signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout
- You have much less energy than you used to
- It seems like you catch every cold or flu that’s going around
- You’re constantly exhausted, even after sleeping or taking a break
- You neglect your own needs, either because you’re too busy or you don’t care anymore
- Your life revolves around caregiving, but it gives you little satisfaction
- You have trouble relaxing, even when help is available
- You’re increasingly impatient and irritable with the person you’re caring for
- You feel helpless and hopeless
Once you burn out, caregiving is no longer a healthy option for either you or the person you’re caring for. So it’s important to watch for the warning signs of caregiver burnout and take action right away when you recognize the problem.
Taking on all of the responsibilities of caregiving without regular breaks or assistance is a surefire recipe for burnout. Don’t try to do it all alone. Look into respite care. Or enlist friends and family who live near you to run errands, bring a hot meal, or “baby-sit” the care receiver so you can take a well-deserved break.
Tips for getting the caregiving help you need
- Speak up. Don’t expect friends and family members to automatically know what you need or how you’re feeling. Be up front about what’s going on with you and the person you’re caring for. If you have concerns or thoughts about how to improve the situation, express them—even if you’re unsure how they’ll be received. Get a dialogue going.
- Spread the responsibility. Try to get as many family members involved as possible. Even someone who lives far away can help. You may also want to divide up caregiving tasks. One person can take care of medical responsibilities, another with finances and bills, and another with groceries and errands, for example.
- Set up a regular check-in. Ask a family member, friend, or volunteer from your church or senior center to call you on a set basis (every day, weekly, or how ever often you think you need it). This person can help you spread status updates and coordinate with other family members.
- Say “yes” when someone offers assistance. Don’t be shy about accepting help. Let them feel good about supporting you. It’s smart to have a list ready of small tasks that others could easily take care of, such as picking up groceries or driving your loved one to an appointment.
- Be willing to relinquish some control. Delegating is one thing. Trying to control every aspect of care is another. People will be less likely to help if you micromanage, give orders, or insist on doing things your way.
As a busy caregiver, leisure time may seem like an impossible luxury. But you owe it to yourself—as well as to the person you’re caring for—to carve it into your schedule. Give yourself permission to rest and to do things that you enjoy on a daily basis. You will be a better caregiver for it.
There’s a difference between being busy and being productive. If you’re not regularly taking time-off to de-stress and recharge your batteries, you’ll end up getting less done in the long run. After a break, you should feel more energetic and focused, so you’ll quickly make up for your relaxation time.
- Set aside a minimum of 30 minutes every day for yourself. Do whatever you enjoy, whether it’s reading, working in the garden, tinkering in your workshop, knitting, playing with the dogs, or watching the game.
- Find ways to pamper yourself. Small luxuries can go a long way in relieving stress and boosting your spirits. Light candles and take a long bath. Ask your hubby for a back rub. Get a manicure. Buy fresh flowers for the house. Or whatever makes you feel special.
- Make yourself laugh. Laughter is an excellent antidote to stress—and a little goes a long way. Read a funny book, watch a comedy, or call a friend who makes you laugh. And whenever you can, try to find the humor in everyday situations.
- Get out of the house. Seek out friends and family to step in with caregiving so you can have some time away from the home.
- Visit with friends. If it is difficult to leave the house, invite friends over to visit with you over coffee, tea, or dinner. It’s important that you interact with others.
When faced with the unfairness of a loved one’s illness or the burden of caregiving, there’s often a need to make sense of the situation and ask “Why?” But you can spend a tremendous amount of energy dwelling on things you can’t change and for which there are no clear answers. And at the end of the day, you won’t feel any better.
Try to avoid the emotional trap of feeling sorry for yourself or searching for someone to blame. Focus instead on accepting the situation and looking for ways it can help you grown as a person. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
- Focus on the things you can control. You can’t wish your mother’s cancer away or force your brother to help out more. Rather than stressing out over things you can’t control, focus on the way you choose to react to problems.
- Find the silver lining. Think about the ways caregiving has made you stronger or how it’s brought you closer to person you’re taking care of or to other family members. Think about how caregiving allows you to give back and show your love.
- Share your feelings. Expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the situation. Talk to a friend or therapist about what you’re going through as a family caregiver.
- Avoid tunnel vision. Don’t let caregiving take over your whole life. It’s easier to accept a difficult situation when there are other areas of your life that are rewarding. Invest in things that give you meaning and purpose—whether it’s your family, church, a favorite hobby, or your career.
Think of your body like a car. With the right fuel and proper maintenance, it will run reliably and well. Neglect its upkeep and it will start to give you trouble. Don’t add to the stress of your caregiving situation with avoidable health woes.
- Keep on top of your doctor visits. It’s easy to forget about your own health when you’re busy with a loved one’s care. Don’t skip check-ups or medical appointments. You need to be healthy in order to take good care of your family member.
- Exercise. When you’re stressed and tired, the last thing you feel like doing is exercising. But you’ll feel better afterwards. Exercise is a powerful stress reliever and mood enhancer. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes on most days. When you exercise regularly, you’ll also find it boosts your energy level and helps you fight fatigue.
- Meditate. A daily relaxation or meditation practice can help you relieve stress and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation. Even a few minutes in the middle of an overwhelming day can help you feel more centered.
- Eat well. Nourish your body with fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lean protein, and healthy fats such as nuts and olive oil. Unlike sugar and caffeine—which provide a quick pick-me-up and an even quicker crash—these foods will fuel you with steady energy.
- Don’t skimp on sleep. Cutting back on time in bed is counterproductive—at least if your goal is to get more done. Most people need more sleep than they think they do (8 hours is the norm). When you get less, your mood, energy, productivity, and ability to handle stress will suffer.
A caregiver support group is a great way to share your troubles and find people who are going through the same experiences that you are living each day. If you can't leave the house, many Internet groups are also available.
In most support groups, you'll talk about your problems and listen to others talk; you'll not only get help, but you'll also be able to help others. Most important, you'll find out that you're not alone. You’ll feel better knowing that other people are in the same situation, and their knowledge can be invaluable, especially if they’re caring for someone with the same illness as you are.
|Local vs. Online Support Groups for Caregivers|
Local support groups:
Online support groups:
To find a community support group, check the yellow pages, ask your doctor or hospital, or call a local organization that deals with the health problem you would like to address in a support group. To find an Internet support group, visit the website of an organization dedicated to the problem.
Resources & References
Helpguide’s Yellow Pages
Resources for public assistance, social services, and other health and human services.
Preventing family caregiver burnout
The Caregiver Manual – Comprehensive resource for caregivers, including articles on how to decrease stress, find support, and balance your time. (Strength for Caring)
Preventing Caregiver Burnout – Part of a handbook and resource guide for caregivers in Florida. Examines the signs of caregiver burnout and how to handle it. Includes tips for caregivers who are themselves challenged by age or infirmity. (Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas)
Tips and support for family caregivers
Information Library – 100 fact sheets and publications on numerous caregiving issues. (Family Caregiver Alliance)
Tips for Caregivers – Provides information to help caregivers prevent burn-out and relieve the stresses of caregiving. (National Family Alliance)
Tips for Family Caregivers – Tips and guides for caregivers. (National Family Caregivers Association)
Online Guide to Caregiving – A comprehensive collection of articles and tools to assist caregivers. (AARP Magazine)
Advice for Caregivers / Terminal Illnesses – Contains articles that present advice for caregivers faced with terminal illness patients. (Terminal Illness)
Find caregiver services in the U.S.
Family Care Navigator – A state-by-state resource intended to help you locate services for family caregivers and resources for older or disabled adults. (Family Caregiver Alliance)
Find caregiver services internationally
Looking for Local Carers’ Services? NHS services available to UK carers of disabled children and adults, including respite care. (NHS)
Commonwealth Respite and Carelink Centres – For Australian residents, provides information and support services for older people, people with disabilities and those who provide care and services. (Australian Government)
Carers New Zealand – Offers help and advice for New Zealand carers, including guidance on respite care services. (Carers NZ)
Programs and Sevices – Information on services for seniors in Canada, including in-home support. (Government of Canada)