Do You Know the Signs of Caregiver Burnout?

signs with the words, "help," "support" and "advice"

You tell yourself everything is fine. If you can just make it through the day, it will all be fine. Then once again you find that Mom has put something strange in the coffee pot while trying to be helpful. Milk this time; last time she put peanuts in the filter basket! You know it’s due to her memory loss but you blow your stack and say things you never thought you would say to this wonderful person who cared for you when you were young, was there for you when you got married, and helped with your children. Suddenly, tears well up and you quickly retreat to the restroom where it all comes flowing out. Maybe you aren’t as “Okay” as you thought you were. The American Psychological Association states 80 percent of family caregivers care for loved ones with long-term care associated with memory loss, such as Alzheimer's. If you're a caregiver, you may be experiencing this similar scenario yourself, or know someone who is.

We all have times when things seem overwhelming, especially to those of us who have taken on the challenges of caregiving. According to an article on AARP, people ages 55 to 75 who are caregivers experience a 23 percent higher level of stress. When burnout or compassion fatigue may be developing, it's probably time for some changes.

Caregiver Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue

According to AARP, physical and psychological wear and tear can lead to caregiver burnout — a condition of feeling exhausted, listless and unable to cope. It can even cause caregivers to make mistakes that could endanger a loved one, such as mismanaging medication, or lead to unhealthy behaviors.

The stages of burnout are stagnation, frustration and lastly, apathy. Most of us can think of a time when we have felt this way or have come close. Usually, after following some simple steps focused on self-care, we manage to get back on track. But when prolonged stress and frustration are combined with a high level of compassion and empathy, a condition called compassion fatigue can begin to emerge. Also called secondary traumatic stress, the condition was first noticed in nurses caring for the chronically ill and is now recognized in various helping professions from psychology to social work. Formal caregivers, particularly at risk, are those who have a large capacity for empathy toward their patients.

tired senior female caregiver with eyes closes

A certain level of detachment is crucial for prolonged caregiving. So, if you consider the huge unconditional love felt for family members, especially parents, you may be at risk for developing compassion fatique. Things to look out for include emotional isolation, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and inadequacy. As a result of these feelings, someone with compassion fatigue can become depressed, and feel overly burdened. According to AARP, in severe cases, caregivers could even unintentionally endanger their loved one. That's why looking out for signs of caregiver burnout and taking proactive measure to address issues as soon as they appear is important.

What Should You Not Do?

  • Develop feelings of apathy, emotional isolation, hopelessness, helplessness, insufficiency

  • Become frustrated and irritated easily

  • Feel overly burdened

  • Become depressed

  • Get sick

  • Compromise the ability to function and think clearly

    sick man holding a tissue to the nose

How Can You Balance Being a Caregiver?

  • Recognize the importance of self-care

  • Make time for activities that bring joy and diversion

  • Learn caregiver stress relief techniques

  • Do something you are passionate about

  • Don’t use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate (get medical help for symptoms that are interfering with your life)

  • Find ways to cope with loss and grief (take a class, find a support group, go to grief therapy)

  • Focus on what you can control

  • Take care of your body (exercise, sleep, good nutrition)

How Can You Connect with Others?

  • Talk about your stress with people you trust (therapist, clergy, family, friend, support group)

  • Consider adopting a pet (pets give unconditional attention)

  • Build a positive support system (without those people who make you feel worse)

  • Look for online caregiver communities

    senior caregivers talking at table in the kitchen

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a well-known caregiver familiar with the toll caregiving can take so she made it mandatory that the nuns in her religious order take an entire year off from their duties every 4-5 years to heal from the effects of their work and re-energize. Most of us can’t take that kind of time off but it shows the importance of good self-care to help counteract the demands of caregiving.

For more helpful articles and tips on caregiving, self-care and incontinence, visit the NorthShore Blog

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