Caring for an ill or elderly loved one is an admirable, compassionate gesture. You care deeply about the person and want to make sure they’re safe, happy, and taken care of while in need. Sometimes, your role as a caregiver is incredibly rewarding. You and your loved one can spend quality time together and truly show your appreciation for one another.
However, caregiving can also be an immensely stressful experience. It’s a full-time commitment that requires mental, emotional, and physical energy. You may worry constantly about medical emergencies or other problems, and you may feel like you devote so much of yourself to others that you can’t take care of yourself.
Caregiver stress is a serious, devastating issue that affects so many people who provide care for loved ones. If you’re a family caregiver, you should understand what caregiver stress is, how it leads to caregiver burnout, and how you can protect your own health and well-being while caring for others.
What Is Caregiver Burnout?
Caregiver stress has a number of causes. You may experience extreme stress if you’re trying to fulfill a primary caretaker role while also maintaining your full-time employment or other family responsibilities. Taking care of someone with intense medical needs can be stressful as well, especially if you don’t have a background in medicine and are trying to learn as you go.
Seeing a loved one struggle with illness or aging can be a major factor in caregiver stress, too. When you’re the primary caregiver and spend every day with someone, you notice every disheartening symptom or every sign of deterioration. This results in an emotional burden that can be very isolating.
In most cases, caregiving is an inherently stressful experience because it requires a great deal of work. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not worthwhile or that you’ll regret your decision to take on the role. Many caregivers find that the role gives them a sense of purpose, meaning, and connection despite the stress. However, the key to wellness as a caregiver is having strong coping skills and finding opportunities to take a break and recharge.
Without support or respite, caregiver stress can quickly lead to caregiver burnout, which is extreme emotional or physical exhaustion. Caregiver burnout happens when you’re so drained that your work as a caretaker prevents you from engaging in the other important areas of your life. You may neglect self-care because you’re so tired, and you may become distant from friends or family because you don’t have the energy to maintain those relationships.
Caregiver stress can affect your ability to provide care and support for your loved one, too. When you’re so drained and exhausted, it’s hard to offer the same level of care that you did at the beginning. You may find that your compassion and empathy start to fade away as well.
Signs of Caregiver Burnout
Caregiver burnout can develop gradually, so it may not be obvious to you that you’re experiencing it. Also, because burnout prevents you from engaging in self-care, you may not check in with yourself and your own mental health often enough to recognize that there’s a problem. Here are some of the most common caregiver stress symptoms:
• You become frustrated or lash out at loved ones more often than usual.
• You feel intense sadness or despair, or you feel emotionally fragile.
• You no longer enjoy the activities you used to love.
• You neglect certain activities, tasks, or responsibilities that were once important to you, such as exercising, spending time with friends, or cleaning your home.
• Friends or family have expressed that they’re concerned about you.
• You feel like you never have enough time in the day to accomplish everything you need to do.
• You’re having trouble sleeping.
• You’ve gained or lost a lot of weight in a short time.
Coping Strategies for Caregivers
Caregiver stress can be painful and isolating, but you don’t have to feel trapped. If your stress feels overwhelming, remember that taking care of yourself is a priority. When you’re not emotionally and physically well, everything else in life will be more difficult.
Here Are Four Tips for Coping with Caregiver Stress
1. Get respite care regularly.
Respite care is the most critical part of any caregiver’s schedule. Ideally, you should get respite care before caregiver burnout sets in as it’s easier to prevent burnout than to heal from it. At any time, though, taking a break from your responsibilities as a caregiver is the best way to find stress relief.
You may be able to arrange respite care through a local or state agency, or you could connect with a local senior center or volunteer group. Trusted friends and family can provide respite care, too. Even if you only get one night away from your caregiving responsibilities, this time can feel profoundly relaxing and re-energizing.
2. Set boundaries.
People who accept caregiver roles tend to be hardworking, independent, and driven personality types. You may be used to taking on lots of responsibilities and handling everything yourself, and saying “no” to requests might be difficult. Setting boundaries is absolutely necessary for managing caregiver stress, though. It will feel uncomfortable and unnatural to decline certain demands, but remember that it’s for your own well-being and for the well-being of those in your care.
3. Find and accept your limits.
When you’re caring for an aging or sick loved one, you might not have the time to complete all of your usual responsibilities and activities. As difficult as it is to let tasks go unfinished, discovering and accepting your limits will help you find peace. Instead of worrying about getting everything done when it’s simply impossible to do so, you can let go of the things that are outside your control.
Try to list your tasks and responsibilities daily and weekly. Organize your list by priority, and identify the tasks that can go unfinished for the time being. Then, cross these items off of your to-do list so that you don’t feel these unnecessary obligations weighing you down.
4. Ask for help.
No one can handle everything on their own. When your caregiver stress starts to build up, reach out for support. Just like you’re helping others by being a caregiver, your loved ones can help you as you navigate this difficult time. This can be a valuable way for your family to feel closer, too. People feel a stronger sense of connection and compassion when they can support one another.
Think about which tasks you feel comfortable delegating to someone else. You could either ask for help with your caretaker responsibilities, or you could request support in another area of your life that may be neglected. For example, your friends could help you clean your home or make meals.
Emotional support is just as important. Speaking with someone you trust about your caregiver stress, anxiety, or frustration can make the emotional burden feel more manageable. If you don’t feel comfortable opening up to a friend or family member, consider attending a caregiver support group or talking to a therapist. These confidential, nonjudgmental environments can be an excellent source of support and advice.
Caregiving isn’t easy, but it’s important to continue taking care of yourself while you take care of others. Coping with caregiver stress requires you to self-reflect, accept the things you can’t change, and ask for help when needed. By taking these steps to maintain your own health and well-being, you’ll feel more equipped to manage the many responsibilities of a caretaker.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling offers therapy services for older adults. If you or a senior loved one has any mental health concerns, reach out to us today to connect with a licensed counselor.