Let’s talk about Caregiver Burnout. It’s real, and it’s debilitating.
What is Caregiver Burnout?
First, we have to define it, so that we all know exactly what we are talking about here. WebMD defines caregiver burnout as the following:
“Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. It may go along with a change in attitude -- from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned. Burnout can happen when you don’t get the help you need, or if you try to do more than you’re able -- either physically or financially. Caregivers who are "burned out" may have fatigue, stress, anxiety, and depression. Many caregivers also feel guilty if they spend time on themselves rather than on their ill or elderly loved ones.” Read more about the definition on WebMD here.
But let’s break it down a little further.
In its simplest terms, a “caregiver” is someone who “takes care of” someone else. It could be a child, an aging parent, or someone with special needs. This person that the caregiver provides care to is typically called a Ward. Next, the term “burnout” is growing so tired of a particular task or tasks that you become exhausted, both mentally and physically. The exhaustion can lead to health issues from the body being so run-down and can even lead to depression. Burnout most often occurs when the individual doesn’t have any other alternative but to keep doing those tasks that are wearing them out.
Caregiver Burnout is very real. In my business, I most often see it occur when a client is taking care of an aging parent, to the point where the caregiver is running around like crazy, trying to handle issues in their own lives and family, and at the same time having to take care of the aging parent that can no longer care for themself on their own. The caregiver keeps giving and giving, without ever taking time for self-care, and gets to the point where he or she is exhausted. So exhausted that the ward is neglected, as well as the caregiver’s own family and kids.
How to recognize Caregiver Burnout?
There are many signs of burnout. It’s common, and the symptoms range from minor to major. In my experience, whether we’re looking at minor symptoms or major, one commonality is that the caregiver rarely recognizes the symptoms. They are so focused on providing care that they don’t even notice their own stresses and changes in their own lives. The caregiver often feels that even if they did focus on their own issues, they have “no choice” but to continue providing the care, day in and day out, even if it’s to their own detriment. They might even look at it as a weakness or an embarrassment to admit that they are exhausted from taking care of their parent.
The Mayo Clinic provides the following signs to watch for. As a caregiver, you may be so focused on your loved one that you don't realize that your own health and well-being are suffering.
Watch for these signs of caregiver stress:
- Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
- Feeling tired often
- Getting too much sleep or not enough sleep
- Gaining or losing weight
- Becoming easily irritated or angry
- Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Feeling sad
- Having frequent headaches, bodily pain, or other physical problems
- Abusing alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications
I have personally seen these symptoms manifest in depression, combined with embarrassment about the inability to care for the parent when feeling such a strong responsibility to do so.
Once we recognize it, what can you do about it? What choices do you have?
First, if you are suffering symptoms of caregiver burnout, know this: You are not alone. Look at these statistics from the Massachusetts Family Caregiver Support Program.
- Approximately 53 million caregivers have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months
- About 16.3 million adult family caregivers care for someone with Alzheimer’s or a dementia-related disorder
The numbers are staggering, and they are growing. There are many ways to get help. First, remember, you can’t help others if your own physical and mental health is suffering. Like they tell you on an airplane, if the oxygen masks come down, you have to put yours on first, before assisting others. You’re not much good as a caregiver if you are exhausted, depressed, and stressed.
You have to be willing to accept help. If you’re resistant to that, well get over it. Here are some ways of coping with, and reversing the symptoms of, caregiver burnout:
- Take advantage of free resources. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs has a program exclusively for caregivers. Massachusetts Family Caregiver Support Program. It’s an amazing resource that most people have never heard of. They have a fantastic newsletter and you can read the newsletter for free, right here. The newsletter is filled with recommended reading and caregiver stories. Plus the support program can help connect you with helpful services even helpful technology. The program is really amazing, and it’s free. Download their fact sheet here.
- Join a caregiver’s support group. It is helpful to hear others’ stories and to share techniques that others have tried and found useful. The Wilmington Senior Center has a caregiver support group (link) that you can join for free.
- Engage in Self-care. This is vitally important. You have to find coping mechanisms as a way to de-stress and relax. Some suggested techniques are Meditation, scheduling relaxation days at home or even at a spa, exercise, and make sure to get enough sleep. Avoid feelings of guilt – no one is a perfect caregiver, and we all lose our tempers at times. Know that you are doing the best you can.
- Set realistic goals and know your limits. Unless you are a trained caregiver, there are going to be some things you just can’t do. Certain individuals need more specialized care or care that requires medical training. Do not attempt specialized care on your own – call in the professionals.
- Look at options for respite care. Respite care is temporary or short-term care that gives a caregiver the chance to catch her breath and steer the focus away from the ward for a short time. Respite care can happen in the home or at adult daycares like Cooperative Elder Services. See my interview with Michelle from Cooperative Elder Services, here to learn more about those services. At the same time as providing a rest period for the caregiver, the programs are enriching for the ward as well.
- Look at in-home care for the ward. There are many services that can provide in-home care, ranging from helping clean to helping the person bathe, and even more specialized medical care. See my webinar with Michelle from ABC Home Health Care here.
- See your doctor. Don’t be afraid to tell him or her what is going on and ask for advice. They may even suggest certain vaccinations and screenings that can help keep you healthy.
- Make sure your loved one’s planning is done. Yes, a Last Will is important, but a Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy are even more important in these cases. A Health Care Proxy will help you (1) hire specialized assistance providers and otherwise deal with medical issues for your loved one, including talking to doctors and having access to medical records. A Power Of Attorney will allow you access to the loved one’s finances and bank accounts, so that their funds can be used to pay for these services, as well as give authority to apply for government and other benefit programs.
Final Thoughts and a Free Offer
Like many forms of burnout, Caregiver burnout has long been swept under the rug. Society is starting to shed more of a light on it and helping to eliminate any stigma or embarrassment about it. The same is happening in other areas as well – read my article about attorney burnout here.
It’s something that has affected, or will affect, all of us. Rosalyn Carter, for the U.S. First Lady while her husband, Jimmy Carter, was in office, said “There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers."
There are many books about caregiver burnout that I recommend to clients. They can be very valuable resources. In fact, for the first 3 people to comment on this post that they would like a copy of one, I will send it to you FREE. Just comment below with your email address and we will reach out to you to confirm mailing information.