Providing loving caregiving for a family member is a deeply meaningful experience. You love your aging parent, your injured partner, or your ill family member; and you ask yourself: Is 20 to 40 hours of unpaid work really even enough? Could I be doing more for them?
Many caregivers are so invested in providing care, they begin to neglect their own health. According to Aging Care, research shows that up to 13% of caregivers actually die before the people they are caring for.
While this thought process is understandable, it can also lead to caregiver burnout. Between the stress of having an unwell loved one, financial pressures, or juggling a career and children along with your caregiving duties, the psychological stresses of caregiving can wear a person down. It’s important to remember that your loved ones want you to take care of yourself, too — you can’t help anyone if you begin to lose your own health.
Warning Signs of Caregiver Burnout
If you’re struggling to sleep, staying up late creating to-do checklists in your head, or starting to realize your short-term memory is failing, you may be experiencing the beginning stages of burnout. It means your brain needs a break — now.
According to WebMD, there are several telltale warning signs that you may be starting to experience burnout:
- Losing or gaining weight, or having changes in appetite
- Getting sick more often
- Feelings of wanting to hurt yourself
- Feelings of wanting to hurt the person you’re caring for
- Feeling hopeless, like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel
While some of these warning signs may sound very dark, there are seven key things to remember when you’re on the brink of burnout.
1. Remember, it's not your fault.
If you’re behaving more irritably with your loved ones, or find yourself with less patience than usual, or even having harmful thoughts — take a step back. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed with guilt. You’re only one person, and you can’t do it all. Be patient with yourself and forgiving of your thoughts. It is challenging to watch a loved one suffer.You don’t have to be strong for everyone. Let your loved ones help you.
It’s normal to feel guilty when you can’t alleviate your loved one’s pain or illness. But remember to set reasonable expectations for yourself in order to avoid burnout.
2. Take a mental health break.
It’s okay to take some time for yourself. The world won’t fall apart if you take a few hours to watch your favorite TV show, or treat yourself to a nice dessert — or take a nap! This may seem like a really simple tip, but you’d be surprised how many caregivers simply never find a free moment to relax.
Both physical and mental fatigue are common symptoms of burnout. Particularly when caring for a loved one, it’s important to take your own emotions into account. Oftentimes, caregivers suppress their own emotions in order to “be strong” for their family. It’s important to allow yourself time to grieve — your loved one is ill, perhaps with an illness that is altering their physical capabilities or even their personality. You’re not just a caregiver; you’re a family member who is experiencing loss.
Give yourself time to work through your own emotions, and rest your brain from the mental fatigue of keeping a constant checklist of tasks you need to accomplish.
3. It’s okay to take care of yourself.
Many caregivers don’t feel they have the right to be selfish. You see a patient or family member in distress, and the illness outweighs your own needs. It’s easy to feel pressured to put your care recipient’s health above your own, but remember: You can’t take care of anyone if you let yourself get sick, overwork yourself, or neglect essentials like sleep.
Typically, a caregiver isn’t assigned that role by the family; they take on the tasks because of their nurturing demeanor or leadership qualities. While these personality traits are admirable, they can also lead to burnout when you forget to take your own needs into account.
According to Caregiver.org, it’s not unusual for caregivers to end up in the hospital themselves. In fact, “if you are a caregiving spouse between the ages of 66 and 96 and are experiencing mental or emotional strain, you have a risk of dying that is 63 percent higher than that of people your age who are not caregivers.”
Be nurturing to yourself. The loved one you are caring for, whatever condition they may be in, still loves you and would never want to make you suffer. They may or may not be able to voice it, but they want you to be happy and take some time for yourself.
4. Let other people help.
You don’t have to bear the weight alone. Research indicates that, oftentimes, women are the ones most affected by caregiving duties. If you have children, a career, a spouse, and social responsibilities — don’t try to juggle it all alone. In many cases, your spouse and family members want to help you, but aren’t sure what you need. Don’t be afraid to ask. Ask for what you need.
Equally important, when asking for help, be specific!
Rather than simply saying, “I need help,” try asking for specific things you need help with. You might try saying:
“I would like to have the evening off on Saturday so I can recover. Would you mind watching the care recipient, taking care of dinner, and bathing them?”
“I need to take the kids to the park on Sunday. Would you please stay with the care recipient from 10am until around 3pm? She will nap most of the afternoon. Would you mind also washing some dishes and doing the laundry while we’re out? It would be so relaxing to come home and have no chores to do.”
Make a list of some specific tasks that you can delegate. Then, make another list of some dates and times you’d like to schedule some “down time” for yourself. Show this list to your spouse, friends, or family members.
Not only will working as a team reduce the mental and physical burden placed on you, it’ll also remind you that you’re not alone — being part of a team and a family increases endorphins and reduces your risk of burnout.
5. Request a meal train.
Your friends want to help you — we promise! It can be challenging for friends to know exactly the right thing to say or do for you, especially if they’ve never been caregivers before. A meal train is a very simple way your friends can come together to lighten your load. You might ask:
“Caring for my ill family member is very meaningful, but it’s keeping me very busy! I am struggling to find time to cook healthy meals for my family and kids. It would mean so much to have some easy dinners to serve my family. We request a meal train, with meals to be pre-made for us by friends and family each day this week. It doesn’t have to be elaborate — just heartfelt! Thank you for taking the time to support our family during this difficult time. Your encouragement and love mean everything to us!”
You can request specific meals, and have each friend choose a day to bring you something warm, delicious, and made with love. There’s nothing like a homemade meal to remind you that you’re not alone, and you will get through this.
6. Join a support group or non-profit.
Humans are biologically programmed to need community. There’s a support group for nearly every illness or struggle under the sun. Whether your loved one has Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, or cancer — there are resources especially for you.
You can search for support groups in your city, or you can find groups online. Facebook has many digital support groups, and many non-profits have message boards on their website or physical meetings in the community.
Another great way to find support is to join non-profit fundraising efforts in your family member’s honor. Join the National MS Society’s Walk MS, a Walk to End Alzheimer’s, or any major organization’s event. Not only will you meet other families going through the same challenges as you, you’ll be empowered to actually fight the illness that is harming your loved one.
Connecting through communities, whether online or in person, can help you take charge of your own challenges and feel strong enough to combat burnout.
7. Think of your favorite thing, and do it right now!
What would make you happy right now? Let’s do a little exercise. Think of something (within reason!) that would make you feel comfortable and happy in this moment. Is it a favorite dessert? A movie you’ve been meaning to see? A walk around the park? Two hours in a quiet room with your favorite book?
Whatever it is, make a date with yourself. Take a break from researching medical papers, making a mental checklist of tasks, and doing chores. Go indulge in a little “you-time!” You deserve it!
Moving Forward as a Caregiver
Being a caregiver is a beautiful and daunting job, one of the most challenging and most rewarding roles you’ll ever have. Being a caregiver puts you face to face with what it means to be alive, and what happens when our bodies begin to break down. It’s difficult. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed.
Burnout can creep up on you; it’s important to be aware of your own limitations. Remember, research shows caregivers are at a heightened risk of landing in the hospital room themselves. So take a few moments each day for yourself. Let your friends and loved ones help you. Join a support group, request a meal train, and remember you’re not alone. Take it one day at a time, and be a caregiver for yourself first.