If you’re a family caregiver for an older adult, you’re not alone. According to the AARP, nearly 44 million people in the United States spend time caring for an older relative. Caregiving is not always an easy job. Stress and burnout can create obstacles for family caregivers, overwhelming them with a sense of physical and mental exhaustion that can feel like a loss of freedom and control.
Caring for an older relative can be a difficult task, and it’s something that many people are unprepared for. Circumstances can lead to someone taking on a caregiving role suddenly and without warning. These new responsibilities can isolate caregivers from their families and friends. Many family caregivers may also have smaller children to care for as well, which can place additional strain on their mental state.
From the outside, this stress can often be invisible, bubbling just below the surface. Often, the weight of caring for others, especially with complex medical conditions, can be suffocating, and result in loneliness and withdrawal, changes in sleep patterns, symptoms of depression, and even increased rates of illness.
Caregivers can see themselves as the only provider for loved ones in their care and blame themselves for accidents or mistakes. They also might find themselves facing the difficultly of having to care for loved ones who live far away.
Signs and Symptoms
There are ways to tell if a caregiver you know is experiencing burnout, though, and ways to help them regain some control if they are. Many caregivers struggle to recognize that they are suffering from burnout. Identifying the signs and symptoms can be the first step toward helping someone experiencing it.
Some of the most common signs include:
- Altered eating patterns, such as seeking out higher-calorie foods
- Using substances, including drugs, alcohol, and sleep medication, to cope
- Increased irritability, resulting in mood swings and outbursts
- Overreacting to common accidents or mistakes
- Anger toward other members of the family or close friends
- Neglect or mistreatment of the care recipient
When a caregiver experiences burnout, it affects everyone around them, too, especially the individual receiving their care. This can mean more frequent visits to the ER, slower recoveries from mundane injuries and illnesses, and decreased quality of life. Additionally, caregivers can face difficulty at work, further compounding their stress.
Myths and Misconceptions
The way we think about family caregiving can amplify the stress. Caregivers can feel like burnout is a normal part of the caregiving process, rather than a harmful and damaging situation to be addressed or avoided. They may believe that caring for others means they have no time, or no right, to care for themselves or to take time for their own personal reasons. They can believe that the stress won’t affect other aspects of their life, or that they can work through it. They might be afraid that nobody will understand how they feel, or that there aren’t any support systems for people in their position. And they might feel like asking for help would be a personal failure.
Dealing with burnout, or preventing it entirely, requires addressing all of these fears and assumptions. While caring for an older adult can be a stressful experience, it does not have to be a challenge faced alone. Caregiver support groups exist to provide help and community to those dealing with the struggles of caring for someone else, and supplemental home care services can alleviate some of the burden so caregivers can take necessary time for themselves.
Breaking Free of Burnout
Ultimately, stress and burnout are easier to manage if they’re broken down into smaller challenges that can be managed more easily. Adopting a problem-oriented approach can help lead to solutions for identifiable concerns, like anxieties about medical equipment or confusion around a care recipient’s behaviors and actions. If these are too challenging to undertake on one’s own, knowing the specifics of the problem can help in reaching out for additional assistance.
It can also help to manage a loved one’s care as a team, either with the individual receiving care, their doctors, or other members of the family. Often, caring for someone is too large a task to be handled by just one person, but by coordinating everyday tasks and important information, it can be easier to make sure nobody gets overwhelmed. Even sharing simple tasks, like grocery shopping, can ease the burden of caregiving and free up much-needed time for personal respite.
When caring for someone else, caring for yourself and understanding your limits and fears are crucial to making the best decisions, both for you and the person in your care. Remembering that you aren’t alone and having a plan in case things get too difficult to handle, like seeking help from an experienced professional home caregiver, can grant freedom and peace of mind.