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Caregiver Burnout: Identifying the Signs and Tips to Cope

Rudri Patel
June 27, 2018
Caregiver Burnout: Tips & Strategies to Help You Cope
Image via Stocksy.com/Beatrix Boros

Almost 40 percent of caregivers report feeling highly stressed in their role, according to the 2015 report "Caregiving in the U.S." Helping a loved one conduct daily activities, like walking, eating, and bathing, can make the caregiver feel frustrated or stressed. Caregivers want to help their loved one, but realize how taxing it is physically and mentally.

To avoid this situation, caregivers must use coping strategies to put themselves first. This will help not only with their well-being, but it will also make them better caregivers to an aging parent or adult child who is significantly compromised.

Defining Caregiver Burnout

Early mornings, late nights and trying to do it all for a loved one is an automatic recipe for caregiver burnout. Some caregivers blame their exhaustion on general tiredness, but burnout is a real hazard. Stress and burnout occurs when caregivers do very little to protect their mental well-being and continue to neglect basic needs.

The Cleveland Clinic defines caregiver burnout as “a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that may be accompanied by a change in attitude -- from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned.” Guilt is a common feeling caregivers experience. They don’t believe they have permission to spend time on themselves, because this means neglecting the care of their loved one. This tug-and-pull is hard to reconcile, but caregivers must realize that putting themselves first means taking care of two people at once. If caregivers take the time to minimize stress, it will show in their care of an ailing loved one.

Signs and Symptoms of Caregiver Stress/Burnout

Consumed by taking care of a loved one, caregivers may not always recognize the signs of burnout and stress. Their primary focus becomes doing whatever is necessary to uplift their loved one’s mental and physical well-being. Overwhelm is easy to dismiss, but there are definitive signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout. The Mayo Clinic provided a comprehensive list to identify burnout that includes:

  1. Constant worry and general overwhelm
  2. Feelings of sadness
  3. Constant tiredness
  4. Weight gain or loss
  5. Lack of sleep or too much sleep
  6. Change in attitude toward an ailing loved one
  7. Loss of appetite
  8. Short temper and becoming easily irritated
  9. General disinterest in activities a caregiver enjoyed
  10.  Frequent headaches, bodily pain, or other physical problem

Some of these symptoms are associated with depression. However, there is a significant difference. Depressed caregivers may turn to escapist behavior, like abusing recreational or prescription drugs, gambling, drinking, and other reckless activities.

Jody Gastfriend, vice president of senior care at Care.com, talks about the signs of caregiver burnout in her book My Parent’s Keeper.

“Dr. Barry J. Jacobs, author of ‘The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers: Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping an Aging Parent,’ describes the typical signs of burnout as fatigue, irritability, sleeplessness, feelings of helplessness, and withdrawal from activities and social contacts. Jacobs warns that isolated caregivers are particularly vulnerable to burnout and more at risk for depression. They cut themselves off from friends, family, and other supports because they don’t have time for that stuff. They keep going until they can’t anymore. And then what? They land in the emergency room with a herniated disc — or worse. Healthcare professionals try their best to intervene, but that may be after the damage is done.”

According to a study conducted by the National Alliance of Caregiving, 72 percent of family caregivers report not going to the doctor as often as they should and 55 percent  skip doctor appointments for themselves. The key is to prevent this downward spiral and to proactively take action by practicing caregiving coping strategies.

Caregiving Coping Strategies

Attention to caregiving coping strategies is essential. There are about 44 million Americans providing caregiving duties, according to the Family Caregiving Alliance. Arming caregivers with the knowledge to avoid burnout is the first step in prevention. These recommendations will help minimize caregiver burnout and, as a result, help provide optimal care for the compromised.

1. Make Time for Your Interests.

Take time to do the things that matter. Whether it’s watching a movie, reading a book, or getting together with friends over coffee, pencil it in the calendar ahead of time. Caregivers need a release from their day-to-day demands.

2. Exercise.

Go for a run, take a class at the gym, or schedule yoga to keep those endorphins going. Several studies point to the restorative impact exercise has not only on the body, but also on the mind. Even if time doesn’t allow for heading outside the home for exercise, there are several online sites that can help squeeze in a terrific workout.

3. Ask for (and Accept) Help.

Caregivers often think the entire burden of a loved one’s illness has to fall on them. This is not sustainable. When someone offers to help, have a handy list available so tasks are easily delegated. Also, if the burden of caretaking is too overwhelming, ask for help from family, trusted friends, or hire an outside aide. This isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather of awareness that the caregiver, too, is human.

4. Collect Information.

If managing a complicated illness, make a list of medications, dosages, and pharmacy information. If the loved one has multiple doctor visits, keep track of appointments on a mobile device or paper calendar. Knowing what and when will allow the caregiver to manage time.

5. Talk to a Professional.

If the burdens of caregiving are too much to manage, seek help from a therapist or support group. These professionals  are designed to support the caregiver. Friends may not understand all the aspects of caregiving if they haven’t experienced it. Having a built-in network of people who have been there or are currently caregivers offers an added sense of community.

6. Adopt a Healthy Sense of Expectations.

Caregivers often have to navigate uncertainty and the unexpected when providing support to an ill individual. Realistically looking at what you can and can’t do  can help focus on what is manageable and where you may need help.

Resources to Help With Caregiver Burnout

The worst feeling for a caregiver is the thought that there is no one to help. This, of course, isn’t true. There are several resources readily available for caregivers accessible online or in-person.

  • Contact a Local Hospital for Caregiver Support Groups. Social workers are a helpful resource to find the right group which will fit a particular need.
  • There Are Several Sources Online That Offer Virtual Support. The Family Caregiver Alliance offers a handbook, and organizations like the American Heart Association share resources for burnout, including a document outlining caregiver rights.
  • Visit a Personal or Family Physician to Cope With Caregiver Stress. These experts will likely be able to direct caregivers to local sources for help.
  • Consider Hiring a Private Aide. These professionals can offer targeted help so the caregiver has downtime.
  • Look Into Home Care Services. For temporary respite or ongoing support, home care agencies will send aides for bathing, feeding, and other matters related to a loved one’s care.
Feb. 16, 2012

Thank you for your article, it is a very good article, someone can have caregiver burnout and not realize it. Caregiving is hard work. I enjoyed being a caregiver for my grandmother and helping her so she could stay at home. God bless the caregivers who work in nursing homes,it has a heavier caregiver load because I was a nursing home caregiver. Dorothy Harris Moy

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