Caregiver burnout: Understand the signs and knowing how to get help
More than 17 million Americans are family caregivers to someone 65 or older. If you care for an older family member or friend, you are not alone…but it can feel that way. Caregiver stress can run high during busy times, like around the holidays. Even the stresses of regular, day-to-day routines can add up. When stress levels rise, caregiving can become overwhelming and emotionally and physically draining.
Whether you feel helpless or just a little stressed, know the signs of caregiver burnout and how to prevent it — or get help — so you can take care of yourself and your loved one.
Signs of caregiver burnout
Caregiver burnout is a type of chronic stress that builds up over time. Many caregivers overlook signs of burnout to focus on the care of their loved ones. Trying to be as helpful as possible is understandable, but if you ignore the emotional and physical signs of burnout, you may push yourself to the point of being unable to provide care.
Here are signs to watch for:
- Becoming easily irritated or angry
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling alone, isolated, or deserted
- Feeling exhausted
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Feeling sad or worried most of the time
- Forgetting things like appointments or your shopping list
- Frequent body aches or headaches
- Losing interest in favorite activities
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Turning to alcohol or smoking to help control stress
If you have had signs of caregiver burnout for more than two weeks, it is time to talk with your medical provider. Seek support for yourself by asking for help with your caregiving responsibilities to avoid the long-term consequences of burnout.
The physical and emotional cost of caregiver burnout
Caregiver burnout can have serious, long-term effects on your physical and mental health. It can cause or worsen:
- Chronic diseases, like heart disease or diabetes
- Immune system problems, thus making you more likely to get sick
Preventing and recovering from caregiver burnout
There are many ways to prevent caregiver burnout, as well as resources to help you recover from it.
To prevent caregiver burnout:
- Ask the Reid Health PACE team to help you learn new caregiving skills, like techniques to prevent back strain or how to keep a loved one with dementia engaged
- Drink enough water and eat a healthy diet
- Get enough sleep
- Take a few minutes to relax throughout each day with a short walk or breathing exercises
- Take an exercise class that lets you get out pent up emotions
- Try a calming activity like tai chi
- Set up a caregiver binder with essential information (like medication lists, phone numbers, and advanced directives) to be ready for the unexpected
To recover from burnout:
- Get respite help, or ask a friend or relative to take over for the weekend
- Ask family, friends, or Reid PACE home health if they can help with daily care, be honest about how much you are struggling
- If you work, consider taking a break under the Family and Medical Leave Act
- If you or your loved one are a veteran, check out the VA Caregiver Support Program
- See a mental health provider (consider telehealth visits if it is difficult to travel to appointments)
Working with other caregivers
Having caregiving help from friends and family can be a big help and stress reliever. But it may also add stress.
This is especially true if you are caring for an aging parent who is also a caregiver for your other parent. Or if you are sharing responsibilities with someone who takes a different caregiving approach.
When caring for an older adult who is also a caregiver, try involving them in the caregiving process. Even if you can see they are struggling, they may be having complex feelings about giving up control.
Work with them to set up a daily routine. Write it down, keep a copy, and post a copy where everyone can see it. Help them put together a caregiver binder to keep important information close at hand. If things are too tense to talk through, ask a mental health specialist for help.
When you don't see eye-to-eye with another caregiver, schedule a time to sit down with them without the person you care for. Talk about what aspects of care are significant to each of you. Discuss what is going well and what needs improvement. Remember they are likely under a lot of stress too.
Finding and accepting support for yourself
Finding a healthy balance between caregiving for others and caring for yourself is essential for preventing caregiver burnout.
It can be tough to ask for help. But take a deep breath and know that sometimes you need care too.
Friends or family may be fantastic sources of support. But sometimes it is easier to ask for help from someone you don't know. If this is true for you, think about joining a caregiver support group. Connecting with other caregivers can be a helpful way to get care and support from people who understand what you are going through.
Ongoing support is vital to managing the stress of caregiving. Joining a caregiver support group can give you the structure you need for long-term success.
Concerned you might be feeling burned out? Take this brief behavioral health screening to learn more.