Know the Signs: Caregiver Burnout

Know the Signs: Caregiver Burnout

Isolating yourself from friends and family could mean it’s time to get help.

Caring for a loved one with a chronic illness can be an emotional rollercoaster to say the least. In addition to stressful hospital stays and office visits, caregiving often brings:

  • Changes to your family dynamics
  • Time away from work and friends
  • Confusion about your identity as you settle into this new role

It’s easy to feel completely alone as you assume the role of a caregiver—someone who assists a sick, disabled or elderly loved one with their everyday needs. But the truth is that there are over 43 million unpaid caregivers in the U.S. Connecting with those facing similar issues is one way to tackle burnout, or the feeling of emotional and physical exhaustion that many caregivers experience.

Here’s how to recognize caregiver burnout, plus information on stress-busters, support groups and counseling.

You’re skipping your salon and doctor’s appointments
The majority of caregivers are balancing parenting, careers and caring for their aging parents. With so many people depending on you, it’s tempting to push your own needs to the bottom of the list.

“The caregiving role can be so time consuming,” says Richard Herold, MD, an internal medicine doctor specializing in geriatric medicine at St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. In fact, over 50 percent of caregivers report having skipped healthcare appointments because of time constraints.

Putting off their own health needs is one reason why caregivers have almost twice the rate of chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes compared with the general population.

Caring for yourself is not wasteful or selfish: you can’t help others if you become ill yourself. Fit more self-care into your day by:

  • Choosing a quiet spot in your house and making it your sanctuary. Schedule daily breaks—write them on your calendar or to-do list if you won’t remember. Go to your quiet place and read, journal or listen to music.

Can’t leave your loved one alone to go for a checkup? Find respite care through your local Area Agency on Ageing or The National Respite Network. Respite care means a trained professional will stay with your loved one while you visit your own healthcare providers or get some rest.

Your back is killing you
Lifting your loved one every day can take a serious toll on your back and joints. In fact, one in five caregivers experience severe physical strain from their daily activities. Small injuries can add up, causing pain, emotional distress or the inability to care for others.

Prevent injuries by:

  • Following the this guide on safe lifting for caregivers
  • Asking your loved one’s physical therapist to show him or her how to help you during transfers
  • Investing in a portable wheelchair ramp. Your insurer may reimburse you for a ramp if you get a prescription.

You haven’t had a heart-to-heart in ages
Caregiving can be incredibly lonely: You may have less time to connect, or maybe you’ve cut yourself off from others because you don’t think anyone could understand what you’re going through. But this is actually one of the most important times to share your feelings.

“Most conditions like Alzheimer’s or heart disease have support groups available through national organizations, such as the Alzheimer's Association or the American Heart Association,” says Dr. Herold. “Also, many hospitals have local support groups,” he adds.  

Another approach is to find a support group in your area through the Family Caregiver Alliance. If you can’t leave your loved one alone, many organizations offer online groups as well.

You’re not eating right
Chronic stress, long hospital stays and cooking for others first can lead to irregular eating habits. It’s important to plan ahead and start building your own health needs into your daily routine:

  • Find out if the person you’re caring for qualifies for Meals on Wheels to free up time and money for healthy meal prep—even if it’s just a few meals a week, put that money towards fresh fruits and veggies.
  • When people ask, “how can I help,” be willing to accept it, says Dr. Herold. Grocery shopping and meal prep are almost always tasks that friends and family can take care of.  

You feel helpless, hopeless or completely overwhelmed
Clinical depression affects between 25 to 50 percent of caregivers. It’s common to struggle as you cope with:

  • Seeing physical or mental changes in your loved one
  • Taking on a parenting role towards your parent or spouse
  • Understanding your personal identity after major life changes

What’s more, these issues can make it hard to sleep and sleep deprivation can, in turn, worsen depression. Sleep deprivation also increases your risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. That’s why it’s so important to talk to a counselor if you’re depressed or you can’t sleep. A counselor can help you tackle negative thoughts so you can take the best possible care of your family.

Remember, caregiving isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon—you need to plan, pace yourself and take breaks along the way. And give yourself credit even when the road gets a little rough: this isn’t an easy job, but you’re showing up and doing the best you can every day.

Medically reviewed in May 2018.

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