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 inching dangerously close to a meltdown over a situation that would have been considered a mild irritation prior to caregiving. 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.
The Sneaky Side of Caregiver Burnout
Oftentimes, burnout sneaks up on a caregiver. Some people don't realize the cumulative effects of caregiver burden. 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.
Many people go through their daily caregiving routine on autopilot without acknowledging their emotions or questioning why they feel the way they do. If we get to know ourselves better, we will be more likely to catch the thoughts and signs that we’re being drawn into a negative or hopeless mindset and seek help before we’ve gone over the edge.
If you find yourself thinking, doing or saying any of the following things, heed the warning that you are burning out.
Signs You May be a Burned Out Caregiver
Unrelenting Fatigue"I'm never able to rest." If your sleep patterns have changed or 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"It’s been several weeks, and I still can’t seem to shake this cold." 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 or 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"I've had it! I'm just trying to go to the bathroom and need you to leave me alone." 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. 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"I don’t feel like talking to or seeing anyone today—even my friends and family." 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"Sometimes taking care of Mom is too much. I feel like I want to end it all." You may start to find less and less joy in things that once made you happy. For example, your grandchild 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 by caregiving that you can’t put any energy into other relationships or activities.
Loss of Interest & Focus"I used to really enjoy reading mystery novels, but even a thrilling whodunit doesn’t seem to hold my interest anymore." 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.
Compassion Fatigue"I love my husband, but I don't want to care for him anymore." 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 well-being. 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"I don't even have the energy to make myself dinner." Caregivers who are approaching or have arrived at burnout may develop the mindset that self-care 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 is just too much trouble. Even if you aren’t experiencing burnout yet, 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 of these symptoms, you may already be burned out. It’s possible that you could need a professional counselor 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 for respite care 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.