When caregiving for a loved one — often an elderly parent — you may find yourself exhausted emotionally and physically, perhaps for no specific reason. Caregiving is a very demanding commitment and many caregivers find themselves suffering from burnout before too long. Here’s what you need to know about the signs of caregiver burnout, what the risk factors for it are and what you need to do about it:
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What Is Caregiver Burnout?
Burnout is a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that is caused by chronic, overwhelming stress. Burnout is often triggered by jobs, schools and other all-consuming demands that can quickly take over a person’s life and make them feel out of control. Caregiving burnout is a specific type of burnout that occurs when a caregiver becomes overwhelmed by the chronic stress and constant demands of caregiving. Some warning signs of caregiver burnout include:
- Feelings of depression, anxiety and/or hopelessness
- Becoming easily irritated and cranky
- Frustration and anger, often directed at the person you are caring for
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Using alcohol, drugs and other substances to self-medicate
- Changes in sleeping patterns, including issues falling or staying sleep, major alterations in sleep schedules and sleeping much less or more than usual
- Changes in appetite and weight loss or gain
- Headaches, stomachaches and other physical complaints, especially those that have no other identifiable cause
- A lowered immune system, which results in getting sick more often
- Denial about your loved one’s or client’s condition
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Risk Factors for Caregiver Burnout
Caregiving is a very demanding job in itself, and other factors can further increase your risk for caregiver burnout. Many volunteer caregivers work a job outside the home, often full-time, which means that they already have limited time for caregiving. They may also be caregiving for multiple people at a time, such as several clients or two elderly parents.
In fact, the term “sandwich generation” has been coined to describe middle-aged people who are caring for their elderly parents while still raising children at home. People who are caring for so many people at once are more vulnerable to developing caregiver burnout. Trying to balance the conflicting demands of employers, caregiving recipients and other family members can be really tough.
The lack of control in caregiving can also lead to feelings of frustration and hopelessness. For one, you don’t have control over your loved one and how their health conditions are progressing, and you may feel out of your depth if you have never been trained as a caregiver before. You might also lack control over the money and resources that you feel you need to properly care for your loved one. You may also have unrealistic expectations about how your caregiving can help loved ones with progressive conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
Caregiver burnout can be further exacerbated by unrealistic expectations placed upon you, either by yourself, other family members or even the care recipients themselves. You might also experience role confusion and have trouble mentally separating your role as a caregiver from other roles in your life, such as parent, spouse and friend. Finally, caregiving also leaves you with little or no time to yourself, and this lack of privacy can really take a toll over time. All these factors combine to make caregivers vulnerable to burnout.
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How to Stop Caregiver Burnout
So what can you do to prevent caregiver burnout? Here are some tips to help prevent it or reverse it if it’s already happening:
- Call in some respite care. Having breaks from caregiving is essential to avoiding burnout. If you have the money, figure out your elder care options — you can hire a professional caregiver for a few hours or days. If you don’t, then other family members may be able to step in or take care of other tasks such as making meals or shopping for adaptive clothing for seniors to free up some of your time.
- Centralize family updates. Sending individual texts or emails to each family member is time-consuming and exhausting. Figure out a way to centralize your updates in a common text or email thread so you only have to post once in order to keep everyone in the loop.
- Join a support group. One of the tough things about caregiving is that the struggles are often only understood by other caregivers, so your friends may not understand what you are going through. Seek out a support group for caregivers, either online or in person in your local area. Fellow caregivers can provide everything from emotional support and validation to practical tips about easy to put on clothing for the elderly. If you haven’t found one yet, make this a priority.
- Maintain other relationships. While your friends might not completely understand your caregiving struggles, it’s still important to maintain your relationships with them. You need to stay connected to the world outside caregiving and friends are an important part of that. Participate in what social events you can and make an effort to proactively reach out to friends instead of always waiting for them to invite you.
- Care for your own health. Many caregivers let their own health fall by the wayside as they care for other people, which actually makes them more vulnerable to burnout. Make sure that you’re carving out time for your own doctor and dentist appointments and also getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of water.