Focus On: Caregiver Burnout

If you’re experiencing caregiver burnout, it’s important to recognize the signs, get help and regain balance in your life.

Providing care for a loved one can be rewarding, but even when it’s a labor of love, it can lead to the state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion known as caregiver burnout. The phenomenon of caregiver stress and burnout is even more pronounced today, as people in the so-called sandwich generation – those providing care to both children and dependent parents – find themselves trying to do everything. However, when caregivers take care of others at the expense of their own health and emotional well-being, they risk courting caregiver burnout and degrading the quality of care they can give.

Symptoms of caregiver burnout

In many ways, the signs of caregiver stress are similar to the symptoms of stress and depression, including:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Exhaustion
  • Social isolation
  • Loss of interest in previous activities
  • Insomnia or other sleep problems
  • A weakened immune system
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs
  • Mood swings, including irritability and impatience with the loved one for whom you are caring, or feeling like you want to hurt yourself or them

Causes of caregiver stress

Caregiver burnout results from spending so much time and energy caring for your loved ones that you neglect your own needs. When this happens, you can start to lose perspective on the situation, and normally small issues can become inflated into crises. This caregiver stress develops over time, from several key causes:

  • Confusion of roles: When you shift into the role of caregiver, it can be difficult to separate this from your normal relationship with your loved one. For example, if you are taking care of your aging father, you need to interact with your father both as his child and his caregiver. These lines can become blurred, leading to confusion.
  • Expectations that are unrealistic: As a caregiver, you may expect that your efforts will be received well and have a positive effect on your loved one. However, when there is an underlying disease such as Alzheimer’s that led to the caregiving, a positive outcome is an unrealistic expectation.
  • Lack of control: Caregiving is a time-consuming, complex endeavor that requires planning and organizing several elements. Trying to manage all of this – especially when you lack the necessary skills, money or other resources – can lead to a sense of powerlessness.
  • Demands that are unreasonable: Once you have placed yourself in the role of primary caregiver, you may feel that this is your exclusive responsibility. Other family members, or even the person for whom you are caring, may also assume that all caregiving is your responsibility. This can lead to your trying to meet unreasonable demands.

Getting help for your caregiver burnout

There are several resources for caregivers who are dealing with caregiver stress, and who need more information or support. These include:

  • Home health aides and nurses
  • Private care aides to help coordinate care and services
  • Adult day care
  • Short-term, off-site respite care for your loved one
  • Nursing homes or assisted living facilities
  • Caregiver support groups and other programs
  • Your local Agency on Aging or local AARP chapter
  • Local caregiving organizations or local chapters of national organizations focused on providing support to people with progressive illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s.

If you’re struggling with caregiver burnout, it may also help to talk to an Enhance counselor.

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