Preventing Family Caregiver Burnout: The need to take care of yourself when caring for a loved one

Six years ago, a close friend of mine gently suggested that I might be suffering from family caregiver burnout. Evidently, she’d noticed a shift in my mood. True, I was easily irritated by trivial inconveniences (road construction, badly parked cars, cashiers-in-training) and I was short-tempered at work and at home. Then one day, I felt too exhausted to get out of bed.

But caregiver burnout? Not possible! Sure, I took my parents on grocery runs, responded to my mom’s daily calls, communicated with their doctors, and dealt with their increasingly frequent health crises. But my folks were still living by themselves in their own home, so clearly I was not their caregiver. That was a term I reserved for selfless people like my friend, Laura, who moved out of state to care for her widowed father, or my friend Barb who had brought her cousin with Alzheimer’s disease into her home to care for her.

Caregiving takes many forms

I came to understand that family caregiving is much broader than when you care for someone fulltime. If you shop, cook, clean, or run errands for a family member, you are a caregiver. If you pay their bills, handle their insurance claims, provide companionship, support them emotionally, or arrange outside services, you are a caregiver. If you help with bathing, dressing, or medical needs, you are a caregiver. Was I then a caregiver? You bet I was.

And if you are a caregiver, you’re in great company. According to Caregiving in the U.S. 2020, a report by the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP, the number of Americans who provide unpaid care to at least one adult with health or functional needs is now at 5.3 million—up from 4.3 million just five years ago. As our population continues to age, that number will keep climbing

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Health impact on caregivers

What makes these statistics worth noting is the fact that caregiving can take a significant toll on the health of the caregiver. According to the National Institutes of Health, the act of caregiving is similar to the experience of chronic stress: it creates physical and psychological strain over extended periods of time; it’s difficult to predict or control; and it can negatively impact work, social life, and family relationships.

Those findings are consistent with the NAC and AARP study where one in five caregivers (21%) report that their health has suffered as a result of their caregiving responsibilities. Not surprisingly, one in four caregivers (23%) says that it’s difficult for them to take care of their own health.

Signs of family caregiver burnout

It was hard for me to admit that I might be struggling with caregiver burnout. Afterall, I loved my parents and was grateful I could be there for them. But according to the Cleveland Clinic, I had at least four of the classic symptoms of burnout, which are similar to those of stress and depression:

  • Increased irritability
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Feeling blue, hopeless, and helpless
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Getting sick more often
  • Feeling like you want to hurt yourself or the person in your care
  • Emotional and physical exhaustion

Reducing the stress of caregiving

Fortunately, there are many excellent organizations that offer resources for caregivers. These include AARP’s Utah Caregiver Resource Guide, Salt Lake County Aging & Adult Services, Utah Alzheimer’s Association, and the Caregiver Action Network which lists the following tips to help relieve some of the stress of caring for a loved one:

  1. Seek support from other caregivers
  2. Take care of your own health
  3. Accept offers of help and suggest specific things people can do to help you
  4. Take regular respite breaks
  5. Learn how to communicate effectively with doctors
  6. If you start feeling depressed, talk with a mental health professional
  7. Explore technologies like medication management apps and fall alert devices
  8. Organize medical information so it’s current and easy to find
  9. Get legal documents are in order
  10. Give yourself credit for everything you’re doing

Family caregivers can also enlist the help of home care experts from organizations like Homespire, an Intermountain Healthcare company which provides a full range of whole-person senior care services that inspire lives—yours and your loved ones.

Download our free guide to help you and your loved one’s age in place. If you need additional guidance, reach out to our Homespire team, 24/7 to schedule a free consultation.