6 minutes read time.
Dr. David H. Demmer, Senior Clinical Psychologist
Caring for an ailing or chronically ill loved one can be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting.
Thinking you have to do it all, carrying unrealistic expectations, and losing time for yourself are some of the warning signs of caregiver burnout.
If you’re experiencing burnout, the time to ask for help isn’t later. It’s now.
Maybe you’re caring for an ageing parent. Or a spouse with a chronic illness. Or a child with a disability. You would do anything for them. After a while, it may feel like you’re doing everything for them.
Caregiver burnout is real. Being the primary caregiver to a loved one can be mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting. Without the right support, it can lead to other problems as well.
Whether it’s you or someone you love getting close to their breaking point, you’re not alone. It’s important to know what causes caregiver burnout, what some of the warning signs can be and how you can get help.
It’s so easy to understate the toll caring for a loved one can take on you. After all, 100% of your focus is on them and what they need to get through each day. There isn’t much left in the tank to even think about what you need.
That’s when we set ourselves up for caregiver burnout.
Caregiver burnout can be defined as ‘a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion.’ It can leave you (or someone you love) fatigued, depressed and without the resources you need to care for yourself or your loved one.
If we’re going to address caregiver burnout, then it’s time to reclaim the importance of caring for ourselves. Say it with us: Self-care isn’t selfish.
Self-care is essential, both for its own sake (you deserve to be ok) and for the sake of those relying on us. If you’re going to have enough left over to care for the people you love, then you have to take care of yourself.
What leads to burnout among caregivers? While every situation is a little different, there are three common causes:
Thinking you must do everything.
The Cleveland Clinic refers to this as ‘role confusion.’ Many caregivers take on the roles of nurse, companion, patient advocate and warrior fighting the medical bureaucracy. That’s on top of the many roles they may already play in their everyday lives, such as partner, parent, employee and so on. It can quickly become too much for one person to carry.
Unrealistic expectations placed on caregivers.
It could be the pressure you put on yourself. Or the expectations of others, including the loved one you’re caring for. Either way, caregivers often feel like they must do absolutely everything or risk letting someone down. This is especially common when an ageing parent with high needs has multiple adult children, but only one of them shoulders the primary responsibility of care.
Loss of outlets to decompress.
Caregiving can be an all-consuming burden that leaves little time for yourself or the activities that normally help you recharge – whether it’s going out with friends or just having a quiet night in.
There are several tell-tale indicators of caregiver burnout. If you’ve ever experienced depression or know someone who has, some of these signs may look familiar. That’s because if left unattended, burnout can sometimes lead to depression.
Common signs of burnout include:
Loss of appetite
Change in weight (up or down)
Feelings of hopelessness
Increased alcohol or drug use
Loss of interest in favourite activities
Avoiding social interaction
Getting sick more easily or more often than usual
If you or a caregiver you know is experiencing these symptoms, the time to get help isn’t ‘later.’ It’s now.
Caring for someone who’s ageing or chronically ill can become consuming, but it doesn’t have to lead to burnout. When you (or someone close to you) are starting to feel at the end of your rope, take these steps to prioritise your well-being.
When you’re a caregiver, it’s easy to feel like your loved one’s health, or even their life, depends on how much you’re there. We can overestimate how much they need us or how much impact we really have on their condition.
It’s important to accept the limits of what we can and can’t do, especially in the face of a progressive or terminal illness. You don’t have to be there every second of the day or night in order to care for a loved one well. In fact, the care and support you’re able to give will probably go further if you can manage to carve out space for yourself.
You do not have to do it all alone. Ask a trusted friend or another family member to take a shift with your loved one so you can get a break. Or maybe organise a list of volunteers to take it in turns. Depending on your loved one’s condition, respite care services may be another option to explore.
And if you see someone struggling with caregiver burnout, don’t wait for them to ask for help. They may feel so overwhelmed they don’t know what to ask for. Just show up.
Taking time for yourself can be difficult when you’re caring for a loved one. You might feel guilty for leaving their side, even if it’s for a relatively short period of time. Remember: the more you care for you, the more you’ll be able to care for them.
Practise these four things to ensure you’re taking care of your physical and emotional well-being, too:
Eat as well as you can.
Get outside for some physical activity – every day, if possible.
Make time for activities or hobbies that help you recharge.
Rest (that includes getting enough sleep).
Whether you talk to a loved one (not the person you’re caring for, of course), a therapist, or even other caregivers – you do not have to go through this in silence. Some hospitals offer support groups specifically for caregivers. You may be able to find one for people whose loved ones have the same condition.
Being vulnerable is hard. But when you’re facing caregiver burnout, that’s not the time to put on a brave face. Ask someone you trust to check in on you regularly – and when they do, be honest about how you’re doing.
Caregiver burnout is a serious (and real) issue. No one should have to go through it alone. If you feel like you’re running on fumes, ask for help – and most of all, be kind to yourself.