Caregiver burnout isn’t something that happens all at once. We all have good days and bad days, which is normal. Eventually, though, we may find ourselves edging dangerously close to a meltdown over a situation that would have previously been considered a mild irritation. The future begins to look bleak and our responsibilities seem endless. That’s when you know you’ve reached a breaking point. So, how do you spot and extinguish the small fires that, left smoldering, can eventually lead to burnout? What do you do if you feel your nerves are already fried?
The best approach, of course, is to take preventative action before burnout is upon you. But, for this to work, each caregiver must understand their own limits and maintain honest self-awareness throughout their journey.
Recognizing Caregiver Burnout
One way to track changes in your physical and mental health is to keep a daily log or a diary. How are you feeling on this particular day? And the next? And the next? By making a few notes each day in a journal or in a file on your computer, you’ll become more aware of your own moods, actions and reactions, and you may be able to better recognize and handle any issues you’re having. Many people go through their daily caregiving routine on autopilot without acknowledging their emotions or questioning why they feel the way they do. Journaling helps enhance self-awareness, while writing can be a cathartic process that relieves stress. If we get to know ourselves better, we will be more likely to catch the signs that we’re being drawn into a negative or hopeless mindset and seek help before we’ve gone over the edge. Seeing a professional counselor or therapist can also be beneficial.
Signs of Caregiver Burnout
- Unrelenting Fatigue – If you are constantly tired without a reasonable explanation (such as too much physical activity), you should make an appointment with your primary care physician. If you are quite sure that the cause of your pervasive exhaustion stems from the challenges of caregiving, then you are possibly close to burnout. Keep in mind that the stress of caregiving can affect both your mental and your physical health.
- Frequent Illness – The strength of one’s immune system is an excellent measure of one’s overall health. A red flag may be if you get headaches, flu, bacterial infections and other illnesses more often than you have in the past. If this is a new pattern for you, your immune system may be compromised by stress, sleep deprivation or depression. Your body is telling you it is time to make some changes.
- Unpredictable Anger – If you find yourself snipping at everyone—from your spouse to the cashier at the grocery store—you may have exceeded your personal capacity for stress. If you were once an easy-going person, this kind of behavior is especially alarming. Even if you’ve always been a bit hot-headed, you need to examine your behavior and be honest with yourself about whether caregiver burden is the cause of these changes. It’s not fair to you, your family or your care recipient if you are so tightly wound that you can’t be civil, let alone loving.
- Withdrawal – Not everyone lashes out when they’re under a lot of pressure. Conversely, some caregivers may find themselves drawing inward and avoiding others. You don’t want to see friends, family members or anyone else, even if you could manage to find the free time. You don’t complain about your life being taken over by caregiving, but you don’t find or seek out any joy or company either. You just put one foot in front of the other, day in and day out. You don’t want to be bothered by people, even those you like or love.
- Depression – You may start to find less and less joy in things that once made you happy. For example, your child is in a play and does a fantastic job. You go through the motions of praising them, but don’t fully enjoy or appreciate their success. Perhaps you even dread going to the play. You’re just so consumed in caregiving that you can’t put any energy into other relationships or activities.
- Loss of Focus – It seems that every time you do yard work, cook a meal or go out to run errands, you inadvertently hurt yourself. It’s entirely possible that you are so distracted and worn out that you can’t fully concentrate on the tasks at hand, thus you make careless mistakes that cause injury.
- Compassion Fatigue – It’s likely that, when you began caring for your loved one, you actively researched their health issues and were fully involved in managing and improving their health. You did these things out of love and concern. But, at some point a caregiver can become so overwhelmed by the burden of this responsibility that they lose some or all concern for their care recipient’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Now, everything they do irritates you to the point that you struggle to be kind to them and you cease to actively seek information and support. You do what you must, but your heart is no longer in it.
- Lapses in Self-Care – Caregivers who are approaching or have arrived at burnout may develop the mindset that small gifts and kindnesses to themselves no longer seem worth the trouble. Need a fresh haircut? Why bother. The only people who see you are your family and your care recipient. A gift certificate for a massage from a well-meaning friend? You don’t get around to scheduling the appointment. Trying to arrange respite care to go is just too much trouble. Even if you aren’t experiencing burnout, if you no longer take time to exercise, cook a meal for yourself or recharge your batteries, then your breaking point is quickly approaching on the horizon.
If you are experiencing many or all these symptoms, you may already be burned out. It’s possible that you could need a professional to help guide you back to emotional health and revamp your loved one’s care plan. Even if only a few of these symptoms apply to you, it’s time to start making positive changes before the situation gets worse.
How to Beat Caregiver Burnout
The solution to preventing/reversing caregiver burnout is a little different for each person. However, the common denominator is reducing one’s caregiver burden by bringing in additional support. If you recognize any of the symptoms above, you must act now. No feelings of guilt or embarrassment are allowed. Many family caregivers take on this responsibility with limited or no assistance, which is an ambitious feat. The trend is to continue going it alone, but at some point, this decision will catch up with you. It’s best to bring in reinforcements early on to reduce the risk of burnout, depression and illness.
The available options for respite may seem slim or unappealing, but it’s important to take advantage of any/all of these resources to safeguard your own health and happiness and that of your care recipient. If you become physically or mentally ill because you have been pushed to the brink, you can’t help anyone. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself. It’s vital. Senior centers, adult day care, in-home care, independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing care, and specialized memory care can all be valuable resources. Ask other family members, friends, members of your church, local volunteer organizations, fellow caregivers or neighbors for intermittent help with caregiving. It can be difficult to find assistance, but it’s crucial that you put in the time and effort to do so.
Remember That You Matter, Too
If you relate to any of the above examples, are experiencing any of the signs of caregiver burnout, or if you simply feel that you are nearing the end of your capacity to provide daily, hands-on care, then you need to look outside yourself for help with your loved one’s care.
Researching your options and acting on them will take time and energy that you may feel you do not have at this point, but this investment is well worth it. It’s far better for everyone involved than allowing yourself to crash and burn.