The Sneaky Side of Caregiver Burnout

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Caregiver burnout isn't something that happens all at once. We have good days and bad days. That's normal.

Eventually, though, we may find ourselves edging dangerously close to a meltdown over a situation that would have been simply a mild irritation not long ago. The future looks bleak and our responsibilities endless. That's a danger point.

How do you spot and extinguish the small fires that, left smoldering, can eventually lead to burnout? What do you do if you already feel fried?

The best approach, of course, is to take preventative action before burnout is upon you.

One way to do that is to keep a 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 on the computer, you may be able to look back and see a pattern. You'll become more aware of your own moods, actions and reactions, and you may be able to recognize and prevent caregiver burnout.

Many people go day to day without questioning why they feel the way they do. It can be more productive to practice some self awareness. Journaling helps. The act of writing may relieve your stress.

If we learn to know ourselves better, we will be more likely to catch signs that we are being drawn toward a negative or hopeless mindset, and convince us to seek help before we've gone over the edge. Seeing a professional counselor can also be beneficial.

What are some signs that caregiver burnout could be present or imminent?

  1. You experience unrelenting fatigue: If you are constantly tired without an explanation (such as too much physical activity), you should see your physician. But if you are quite sure that the cause of your nearly constant fatigue stems from the challenges of caregiving, then you are possibly close to burnout.
  2. You get sick more frequently: Constant illness can be a sign that you've had enough. You catch colds frequently, when you never used to. Your colds repeatedly turn into secondary bacterial infections. You get headaches, flu and other illnesses more often than you have in the past. If this is your pattern, your immune system may be compromised by fatigue or depression. Your body could be telling you to make some changes.
  3. You lose your cool more often: If you find yourself sniping at everyone—from your husband to the cashier who messed up your grocery order—you may have gone beyond your personal capacity to handle stress. If you were once an easy going person, this kind of behavior is especially alarming. Even if you've always been a bit volatile, you need to examine your behavior to see if you've gone over the top. It's not fair to you, your family or your care receiver if you are so tightly wound that you can't be civil, let alone loving.
  4. You begin withdrawing from your loved ones: Conversely, you may find yourself pulling inward. You don't want to see friends, family members or anyone else, even if you could find the time. You don't complain about your life being taken over by caregiving, but you don't find any joy in life either. You just put one foot in front of the other, gaze focused on the ground. You don't want to be bothered by people, even those you like or love.
  5. You have trouble finding happiness: You may start to find less and less joy in things that once made you happy. Your teenager is in a play and does a fantastic job. You go through the motions of praising him, but don't enjoy his triumph. You even dread going to the play. You're just too wound up in caring for your sick loved one to put any energy into your relationships with other family members or friends.
  6. You become more prone to accidents: It seems that every time you do yard work, you inadvertently hurt yourself. You break a glass in the kitchen and slice your hand picking up pieces. You have minor fender benders while driving. It's entirely possible that you are so distracted and worn out that you can't concentrate on what you are doing, thus you make mistakes that can cause injury.
  7. You stop seeking information and support: Your mom has Alzheimer's and you used to be able to cope not only with her memory loss, but her lapses into her alternative world. You researched her disease and learned what different stages meant. Now, everything she does irritates you to the point that you struggle to be kind and you no longer seek information and support. You do what you have to do but your heart isn't in it.
  8. Caring for yourself doesn't seem worthwhile: Small gifts to yourself don't seem worth the trouble. Need a fresh haircut? Why bother. The only people who see you are your family and your care receiver. A gift certificate for a massage from a well-meaning friend? You don't get around to scheduling the appointment. It's just too much trouble.

If you are experiencing many or all of these symptoms, you may already be into the burnout stage. It's possible that you could need professional help to guide you back to emotional health.

At the very least, you should make changes in your life and that of your care receiver. Even if you see that only a few of these symptoms of burnout apply to you, it's time to start adjusting things before the situation gets worse.

If you told your mom you'd never put her in a nursing home, well that was then and this is now. You have honored the spirit of your promise. No one knew that she'd have a stroke and need intensive care from you for years.

It's time to get help with caregiving by placing your mom in a good, nearby nursing home. If you haven't asked to put her name on a list, you need to do so now. If you are emotionally at the breaking point, you may have place her in a facility that's not your first choice and then move her later if needed.

The point is, you must take action – no guilt allowed.

Keep in mind that your loved one most likely wouldn't have wanted to see you devote your life to his or her care, year after year, all by yourself. These things usually happen by default.

There are choices.

If you aren't in a situation where a nursing home is necessary, maybe adult day care can become part of the routine so that you can have some time to yourself and your care receiver can enjoy peer socialization. If in-home care seems to be a better solution, try that.

If you become physically, emotionally 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.

If you recognize yourself in any of the above situations, experiencing any of the signs of caregiver burnout, or if you simply feel that you are nearing the end of your capacity of provide daily, hands-on care, then you need to look outside yourself for help with your loved one's care.

Taking action will likely seem difficult at first. But in the end, it's far better for everyone than allowing yourself to crash and burn.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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18 Comments

What is really interesting (and that's the best diplomatic wording I can think of) about the over all social notions about older adults and economic climate in the US is that unless you are wealthy or desperately poor, "put Mom in a nursing home" is not an option. Placing Mom in adult day care more than a few times a week is not an option. My family (myself included) was blind enough to have worked all of our lives at so-called white collar jobs and professions that helped society but did not pay enough to create wealth. Among the various federal and state income guidelines, it seems that mid- to lower-middle class working people are ineligible for any assistance public or private. I know because I have spent the last seven years accessing, filling out the endless forms, complying with the daunting request for documents for every program anyone has ever suggested. We (my mother 90 and myself 62) are approximately $1200.00 over income. I am so totally burned out that I just want this period of my life to end and have ambivalence as to whether I live through if. In fact, dying would be merciful because even if my mother died tomorrow, seven years of caregiving on my own has destroyed the personal and professional life I built from graduating from college in 1975 to when I started caregiving. It took me all of those years to build up a reputation, network, go through graduate school, etc. I do not have that many years ahead of me and it seems that no one wants to know (or hire even part time) anyone my age. Death will be merciful because I am now destitute I felt compelled to respond because I believe you and the others on this site genuinely want to help. But, I think what I call Hallmark Moments (where society at large cares and that there are solutions to a utterly devastating situation. People say take care of yourself but, there is no respite, no nursing home, and very little adult care, or in-home help to hold off burnout. For me, an only child with no children and divorced the only thing I can do is stand and live life moment by moment in hopes that this cargiving will end.
These are all symptoms of depression, which can result for the unrelenting stress of caregiving. There is no shame in paying a visit to your doc to see if you can get some help with the depression/stress. My doc prescribed a really good antidepressant, and I noticed a huge change after just a few days. I didn't feel significantly different, but I wasn't as scatterbrained, short-tempered, tired, teary, etc. Where I would normally have a tearful meltdown on the phone with a sister or a friend once or twice a week, they weren't happening anymore. I wasn't yelling at my mother as much either - and trust me, a SAINT would yell at my mother! So if you're experiencing these symptoms, take care of yourself and see your doctor.
I feel some of those symptoms and yet I feel that I am just beginning the difficult part. Bill is about 7 years into the Alzheimer's. He can still be left alone for a few hours which I do take advantage of. Yet he can't brush his teeth, know which product goes with which activity- for instance putting stick deodorant on his face after
shaving! He doesn't know how to hold his knife anymore, or which utensil to use to eat! He refuses vegetables now and binges on sweets. The disease is getting more pronounced now and yet he is still functioning pretty well. He gets up every night around 10, or 2, or 4 and takes a shower. But I don't think he uses soap and never washes his hair! It is confusing for him as well as me! But I am still OK . Maybe burnout is getting closer but not here yet! I try to go out with my friends as often as possible and I enjoy those get togethers a great deal! But then it is depressing to me to get back to normal so quickly! I try to take him along as often as possible to give him a change of scenery. We go to the nursing home often to visit his brother who also has Alz. and is fading away in the home! It can't happen fast enough for me! I dread going there because no one can talk and it is just depressing to watch his brother drool and cough up fluids and just be hanging on. And it also reminds me that before long Bill will be there also! You are right about the journaling. Writing on here is an outlet and a stress reliever. I write on Facebook a lot about everything. It just relieves my stress. I can get my feelings out!