No one chooses to become burnt out from caregiving or develop what is known as caregiver fatigue. When it does happen, reducing stress is the goal — not trying to be the best caregiver in the family or see just how exhausted you can get.
Caregiving is difficult. From coordinating and managing health care to shuttling care recipients to appointments to handling their finances and household needs or providing companionship and emotional support, caregiving is not only physically demanding, but also mentally taxing. If you're looking after two or more family members, burnout is even more of a possibility.
Caregivers feel their own pain as they watch someone they love struggle with physical or cognitive problems. When a parent or spouse has dementia, it can seem like a one-way relationship, and many caregivers also work full-time or part-time jobs.
While it can seem like caregiver fatigue is inevitable, there are strategies you can employ to reduce stress and burnout and ensure that you are able to provide the best care possible for loved ones. The first step is to understand and recognize the symptoms and warning signs of caregiver fatigue.
Identifying the Signs of Caregiver Fatigue
The Cleveland Clinic describes caregiver fatigue, or caregiver burnout, as "a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion." With caregiver fatigue, your attitude might fluctuate between positive and negative, and you might feel anxious, irritable, resentful or angry. Individuals with burnout may become depressed without time for themselves or feel guilty about not spending all of their time with their elderly or ill loved ones.
The list of symptoms from the Cleveland Clinic includes:
- Withdrawal from friends, family and other loved ones.
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed.
- Feeling blue, irritable, hopeless and 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.
The source of these symptoms tends to be too much work on a caregiver's plate, to the point where many caregivers are so busy that they may neglect their own well-being. Role confusion, which can occur if a caregiver finds it difficult to separate their role as a care provider from their role as a family member or friend, is also a common factor.
Some caregivers set unreasonable expectations for how they will uphold the health and happiness of their care recipient, which is demanding too much from themselves. In some cases, such as when the care recipient is suffering from a progressive disease like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, the lack of control over the situation can be extremely difficult to accept. Naturally, financial troubles can exacerbate tense situations as well, and caregiving is no exception.
Strategies to Prevent or Mitigate Caregiver Fatigue
What can caregivers do? Here are some steps you can take to help prevent caregiver burnout.
Stay Organized and Prepared
The more prepared you are, the less overwhelmed you will be as a caregiver. Keep all important information and documents in one place, such as in a binder or in separate colored folders. In another notebook or on a smartphone, make an ongoing to-do list and prioritize what needs to get done. For example, you might call your care recipient's insurance company about upcoming health care services so you can feel more in control of the situation.
Planning ahead is an important part of caregiving. Always try to prepare for what's next so you can proactively address expected issues, like paperwork required for the doctor, and handle unexpected issues that may arise, such as the adult daycare closing for a week.
Make Your Life Easier
Believing that there's too little time to do everything can contribute to caregiver burnout. If you're strapped for time, consider taking advantage of delivery services and online shopping sites. Many grocery stores, restaurants and pharmacies offer home delivery, and you can order most items online nowadays.
Creating a routine for your care recipient — for example, waking, bathing, going outside and watching their favorite show — can provide a sense of security for them and make it easier for you to perform your caregiving tasks.
When you're caring for someone else, be sure to take time to care for yourself, even if it's just an hour or two. Taking care of yourself does not mean you're being selfish — it's absolutely critical to effective caregiving. Make sure you're eating nutritious meals and getting plenty of sleep and exercise. It can also be helpful to accept any negative feelings you may have — such as frustration or anger — about your responsibilities or the care recipient. These feelings are normal and do not mean you are a bad person or a bad caregiver.
Accept and Ask for Help
You may plan ahead and take all the steps you can to make caregiving as easy as possible but still feel overwhelmed. In this situation, it's both normal and important to ask for help. This might mean finding someone you trust to talk through any frustrations or challenges, seeking out local support groups or respite care services, or speaking with a professional therapist or social worker to figure matters out.
See if your siblings or close family friends can chip in. You could have a family meeting to see what everyone's willing to do and synchronize schedules for better sharing of care responsibilities. If you can, take advantage of respite care services, which can provide temporary breaks for caregivers, ranging from a couple of hours of in-home care to a short stay in an assisted living facility.
Sometimes people around you want to help but don't know how they can. Consider making a list for the next time someone asks if there is anything they can do. Websites like CaringBridge or Lotsa Helping Hands also allow you to post requests.
Caregiver fatigue does not always occur, but it's important to know your limits and be honest with yourself about your potential to experience burnout. Set realistic, achievable goals for yourself, and accept that you may need to turn to others for help with some tasks. The best antidote may be letting go of perfectionism. Do the best job you can, given your situation, and always be kind to yourself.