“I don’t know what to do. I love her, but I’m exhausted and frustrated all the time.”
Being a caregiver to someone you love can be draining physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s vital to recognize the signs of caregiver burnout and to develop some strategies for how to address those issues. Ignored, burnout can eventually lead to a host of larger problems, including an inability to provide adequate care.
The toll for caring
Caring for another person, no matter the circumstances, often adds stress to our lives. Caregiver burnout happens when that stress becomes overwhelming. Burnout can lead to a decline in mental and physical health— a study in the Journals of Gerontology found that caregivers who felt that they were under a lot of strain had poorer health outcomes than caregivers who felt less strain.
Statistics provide insight
In 2020, approximately 53 million American adults were unpaid caregivers. Of these, almost 9 in 10 were caring for someone related to them; about half of these cared for a parent.
Women are more likely to be both caregivers and care receivers, and women experience greater stress levels than men. Recently, over the last 20 years, men have been shouldering more caregiving tasks than in the past, but women still spend more hours providing care than men. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, family caregivers spend an average of 24.4 hours per week providing care, but nearly 1 in 4 spends 41 hours or more per week providing care. Those caring for a spouse or partner spend the most time on these tasks: up to 44.6 hours per week.
As our population ages, the value of services provided by informal caregivers has steadily increased. The estimated economic value of these services, nationwide, was $470 billion in 2013, up from $450 billion in 2009 and $375 billion in 2007. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that the physical and emotional impact of dementia caregiving resulted in approximately $9.7 billion in healthcare costs in 2014.
Symptoms of burnout
Warning signs for caregiver burnout include physical, mental and emotional symptoms, including feeling anxious, irritable, depressed, or exhausted, avoiding people, headaches, insomnia, changes in appetite and loss of enjoyment in the caregiver’s own interests. A weakened immune system, leading to more frequent infections, is another common issue, with potential consequences that can affect others, beyond the individual caregiver.
In a 2019 study, the Cleveland Clinic described a number of potential causes for caregiver burnout. The primary cause is that the caregivers take so much time caring for others that they tend to neglect their own needs. Unrealistic expectations, lack of boundaries, loss of control and increasing demands also increase the likelihood of burnout.
What are some of the ways we can lessen the odds of caregiver burnout? One of the most beneficial is awareness; recognizing that caring for yourself is critical in order to provide adequate care for others. Setting personal goals, with specific action plans, can be a worthwhile way to value your own time and needs. Establishing firm boundaries and limits as to how much you can do may feel initially unkind, but it’s a vital measure.
Our own attitudes also play a substantial part in avoiding burnout. Bear in mind that a positive attitude is not the same as suppressing your feelings when dealing with negative situations. On the contrary, feeling discouraged, angry, sad or uncertain are natural reactions. The difference is that an optimistic attitude helps you move past those feelings, to look for solutions.
Put your Mask on First. If you feel that you’re suffering from caregiver burnout, there are a number of steps you can take to get help. Remembering to take care of yourself by getting proper sleep, diet and exercise may sound like another chore to deal with, but investing in your own health and well-being definitely pays off. Meditation, breathing exercises and indulging your sense of humor are other useful strategies.
It’s okay to get help. But sometimes it isn’t enough to try and do it all by yourself. Sometimes outside help is the best response, via respite care, adult day care or in-home services. A residential care facility is another option if you need a longer break. There are many of these services in our area, too many to list here. However, the best source for these facilities is the Area Office on Aging. Call them for help at 419-382-0624 or visit their website at areaofficeonaging.com/housing-search. Of course, payment for these services usually isn’t covered by Medicare or insurance.
Support groups and classes. Support groups for caregivers of patients with particular diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or dementia can be very helpful. Your local Area Agency on Aging, local AARP chapter and senior center may offer resources including classes for caregivers.
There are a number of online resources available.
- Family Caregiver Alliance: caregiver.org
- National Institute on Aging: nia.nih.gov
- Caregiver Action Network: caregiveraction.org
- Area Office on Aging: areaofficeonaging.com
The most important thing is to recognize the warning signs of caregiver burnout, then to acknowledge them and, perhaps, prevent them. Following these tips for preventing burnout and using the many resources available to caregivers will help you, and those in your care, thrive.