In North America, more than 65 million adults are classified as caregivers, taking care of an elderly, chronically ill, or disabled loved one. Family caretakers average 20 hours of unpaid in-home care per week. This often places a burden on personal lives and finances. Caregiving can also lead to increased stress, which can negatively affect one’s ability to provide good care.
Caregivers are the unsung heroes of the health system and are needed more than ever, but too often they experience burnout. Caregiver burnout is 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.
Burnout can occur when caregivers don’t get the help they need or if they continuously try to do more than they are able, either physically or financially. Over time, caregivers may experience fatigue, stress, anxiety, and depression. Many people in this role may also feel guilty dedicating time for themselves rather than on their elderly or ill loved one.
The symptoms of caregiver burnout are similar to those related to stress and depression. They include:
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Feeling blue, irritable, hopeless, or helpless
- Changes in appetite, weight, or both
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Getting sick more often
- Feelings of wanting to hurt yourself or the person for whom you are caring
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
- Excessive use of alcohol and/or sleep
What causes Caregiver Burnout?
Caregivers often are so busy caring for others that they tend to neglect their own emotional, physical, and spiritual health. The demands on a caregiver’s mind, body, and emotions can easily become overwhelming, leading to fatigue and hopelessness.
Other factors that can lead to caregiver burnout include:
- Role confusion: Many people are confused when thrust into the role of caregiver. It can be difficult for a person to separate his/her role as caregiver from the role of spouse, lover, child, friend, etc.
- Unrealistic expectations: Many caregivers expect their involvement to have a positive effect on the health and happiness of the patient. This may be unrealistic for persons suffering from a progressive disease, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
- Lack of control: Many caregivers become frustrated by a lack of money, resources, and skills to effectively plan, manage, and organize their loved one’s care.
- Unreasonable demands: Some caregivers place assume unreasonable burdens, in part because they see providing care as their exclusive responsibility.
Tips for Preventing Burnout
- Seek out a support network. Whether that be a friends, co-workers, or neighbors, find people you trust to talk to about your feelings and frustrations. A support network can be a great source for encouragement and advice from others in similar situations.
- Set realistic goals and don’t go it alone. Accept that you may need help with caregiving and turn to others for help with some tasks. This is especially true when the person being cared for is a parent – include all siblings in caregiver duties.
- Be realistic about your loved one’s disease, especially if it is a progressive disease such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
- Remember that your work has value. Caregiving is often unpaid but that doesn’t mean there’s not a significant importance associated.
- Don’t neglect your own well-being because you’re busy caring for someone else. Set aside time for yourself, even if it’s just an hour or two. Remember, taking care of yourself is not a luxury; it is an absolute necessity if you’re going to be an effective caregiver.
- Talk to a professional. Most therapists, social workers, and clergy members are trained to counsel individuals dealing with a wide range of physical and emotional issues.
- Know your limits and do a reality check of your personal situation. Recognize and accept your potential for caregiver burnout.
- Educate yourself. The more you know about the illness of disability, the more effective you will be in caring for the person with the illness or disability.
- Stay healthy by eating right and getting plenty of exercise and sleep.
- Accept your feelings. Having negative feelings such as frustration or anger about your responsibilities or the person for whom you are caring is normal. It does not mean you are a bad person or a bad caregiver.