Taking care of a loved one can be a rewarding but stressful experience. You may feel that you are the best equipped to handle the situation, or financial concerns may have prodded you unwittingly into the caregiver role. No matter how prepared you may be for the job, caregiver stress can plague anyone. This stress materializes slowly as a type of burnout, where a caregiver disappears into a role that takes them away from their own life.
Stress not only affects the caregiver but the person requiring care as well. Good intentions turn into a bad situation for all, as burnout takes out two victims at once. Awareness of the risk of burnout is key to addressing and managing the difficult process of caregiving.
What Causes Caregiver Burnout?
The causes of caregiver burnout can range from over-committing oneself to a task they are ill-prepared to removing oneself from social situations that once provided joy in life.
The risks of caregiver stress include:
Financial need. Families who have assets and abundant income often choose to have professionals provide care precisely because they wish to avoid stress.
Living with someone who needs care. If a partner or parent needs care, there is a higher likelihood that a loved one will want to take on the role of a caregiver. Although the desire to save the person needing care is laudable and understandable, family members lack objectivity when it comes to making care decisions.
Lack of choice. Stress follows those who have no choice but to step into the caregiver role. These people develop regret and despair as diseases and conditions progress.
Signs of Burnout
Caregiver stress develops slowly. This slow burn makes it much less likely to identify. A caregiver’s life changes, becoming increasingly dread-filled and negative. Sleep becomes irregular. Exercise is avoided, as well as engagement in social situations. A caregiver may begin to neglect healthy meals, opting instead to just eat something small after feeding their loved one. In addition to skipping proper meals, a caregiver may neglect their own medical care. They may spend a lot of time at doctor’s offices, but rarely for their own care.
Cope by Knowing Yourself
Since this type of stress develops slowly, periodic self-assessment is the first step to avoiding burnout. Online caregiver checklists provide a handy way to check on oneself. Questions include how many minutes in the past week were set aside for exercise and caregiver self-care. Other areas covered include social, emotional, and spiritual health. It is also crucial to self-assess your level of caregiver awareness, which is your understanding of your relative’s disease and its prognosis. Understanding your role and limitations as a caregiver require a grounded understanding of reality. Caregivers can get lost in their daily routine and miss the forest for the trees.
Coping Through Self-Care
One of the best ways to avoid the feelings of despair and depression that can accompany caregiving is by focusing on your health and well-being. Some experts even suggest that caregiver well-being is more important than that of the person needing care. Anyone who has paid attention to an airplane safety presentation before a flight will know that you are supposed to grab your air mask first before trying to help others.
Similarly, being selfish helps your loved ones. You are a more effective caregiver when you are physically, emotionally, and mentally well. Make your health a priority. Visit your doctor, exercise every day, eat a balanced diet, and spend time having fun with friends away from the person who needs care. Step away from the caregiver role when you can. Reach out for help from professionals for both your care and for your loved one’s care.
By all means, avoid self-medicating to solve your stress. Alcohol and drugs are common escape mechanisms for caregiver stress, but these temporary sources of relief end up harming you and your relative in the long run.
Caregiver stress is unfortunately common, but it’s easily managed through understanding of the caregiver role and the importance of well-being to the person needing care.
Harry Cline is author of The A-Z Home Care Handbook: Health Management How-Tos for Senior Caregivers. As a retired nursing home administrator, father of three, and caregiver to his ninety-year-old uncle, Harry knows how challenging and rewarding caregiving can be. He also understands that caregiving is often overwhelming for those just starting out.