What is caregiver burnout?
Caregiver burnout is a condition that occurs when a carer becomes overwhelmed from the stress and burden of caring for a loved one. Physical, emotional and mental exhaustion are usual, and the carer may feel increasingly isolated, unappreciated and unsupported.
Who is prone to caregiver burnout?
Anyone spending time caring for someone else might be prone to caregiver burnout over a period of time. While there may be many tangible and intangible rewards associated with caring for someone, it also requires significant dedication, energy, time and resources, and presents many physical and emotional demands. Almost every caregiver experiences some degree of caregiver burnout at some point. If the problem is not addressed adequately, the caregiver will eventually be unable to provide an acceptable level of care. This has negative consequences both for the carer and their patient.
What causes caregiver burnout?
Caregiver burnout can be caused by a number of contributing factors:
- Being in a state of stress or distress for a prolonged period of time. This stress can be caused by seeing your loved one degenerate to the point of needing care, or by the mechanics of having to give that care. If, for instance, you need to shower and dress your elderly parent and that parent is resistant to the process or to their child (you) having to carry it out, this can cause a lot of tension and stress. Unresolved and prolonged stress can lead to feelings of tension, anger, anxiety, depression, fear or frustration, and can also cause physical problems such as muscle tension, sleep disorders, headaches, fatigue, weight gain, chest problems, low immunity, skin and hair problems, etc.
- Having to manage multiple roles. Most caregivers have many other roles to carry out, such as spouses, parents, employees, friends and children. Having to manage these roles, coupled with the needs of caregiving, can cause the caregiver to feel as if they can’t give each role enough time to be effective, and may lead to feelings of guilt, resentment and stress.
- A lack of support. Many caregivers find that there is little support for their role, either practically, financially or emotionally. They may feel that their family doesn’t do enough to support their role, and that there are no resources or help available in the community to help them effectively manage their loved one’s care.
- Neglecting your own health and wellbeing. Caregivers immersed in meeting other people’s needs may often forget to meet their own health and wellbeing needs. They may not get enough rest, exercise, free time or healthy food to maintain the energy required to fulfil their many roles. This may be due to forgetting about their own needs, or not having the time, energy or will to bother with their own health.
- Unrealistic expectations. Many caregivers might expect a positive change to the health and happiness of their loved one once they take an involvement in their care, and may be dismayed to find that their care doesn’t have the desired effect. However, if the patient is suffering from a progressive disease such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, this expectation is unrealistic. The patient may also not be appreciative of the care provided (often due to their condition), which may cause resentment and negative emotions.
- Unrealistic demands placed upon caregivers by the recipient of care or other family members.People may expect the caregiver to be everything to them and to carry out far more tasks than they are realistically capable of.
- Being an over-achiever or a perfectionist. Highly strung, perfectionist personalities can find caring for someone (particularly someone with a progressive disease) to thwart their need for control and perfection. This leads to frustration, self-doubt, and a decreased ability to cope.
- Grief. Watching a loved one decline can cause significant grief, even though they are still with you. It can be devastating witnessing someone go through a progressive disease and lose the abilities and awareness they previously had. Caregivers may also grieve for the life they used to be able to live, and which they no longer can.
- Lack of privacy. Spending a lot of time caring for others means little time that can be spent alone.
Any or all of these factors experienced over time can cause the mix of physical and emotional symptoms known as caregiver burnout.
Is caregiver burnout common?
Given the high number of Australians who are caring for elderly or unwell relatives, caregiver burnout is indeed quite common. Current statistics suggest that around 1 in 11 people in Australia are carers, which equates to more than 2.65 million carers who give support to a relative or friend.
The average age for a primary carer in Australia is 54.3 years old. This age can often be problematic, in terms of developing health problems and managing competing demands – which can make caregiving even more difficult.
More than half of primary carers in Australia provide care for at least 20 hours per week, while one third provide 40 hours or more of unpaid care a week.
Warning signs of caregiver burnout
It helps to be aware of the signs of caregiver burnout, so that you can monitor yourself as you care for your loved one. If you’re experiencing any of these signs and symptoms, you might be burning the candle at both ends.
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Lack of energy
- Aches and pains
- Increased or decreased appetite (leading to weight changes)
- Insomnia and sleeping problems
- Frequent headaches
- Frequent infections due to a weakened immune system
- Feeling and acting angry and argumentative and quickly losing your temper
- Worry and stress
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Wanting to isolate and avoid people both emotionally and physically
- Neglecting your own needs and health
- Loss of interest in previous activities
- Feeling like you’re losing control of your life
- Lack of motivation
- Inability to concentrate
- Neglecting your caring duties
- Use of drugs, alcohol or other stimulants to relieve the symptoms
What to do about it
If you feel you might be suffering from caregiver burnout, you need to see your doctor or mental health provider. They will discuss your feelings and symptoms, and be able to recommend ways of coping. Alternatively, you could try this caregiver self-assessment checklist.
How to prevent caregiver burnout
You need to find ways to meet your own needs, as well as those of your family or patient. Here are some tips:
- Take some time out. No matter how busy your day, take a few moments to take a breather and do some relaxation breathing to help lower your stress levels. Don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself – it’s necessary for good health.
- Get help if you can. It’s unwise to try and do everything yourself. Ask family or friends for some help or to spend some time with the person you are caring for, even if it’s just for a few hours.
- Stay organised. Make a daily list of tasks and activities that need to be done, as this will help you stay on top of them all. Consider if you can delegate any of them – people are often happy to help once they know what needs to be done.
- Find out what government-funded help is available. There might be respite care or services available that you can access.
- See if your workplace offers family leave allowances. Take advantage of any time they can offer you.
- Look after yourself. Try and get plenty of sleep, eat healthily and well and stay active with walks or other types of exercise. Establish routines to help make these tasks easier. Neglecting yourself will only lead to further problems. You can’t be a good caregiver if you don’t take care of yourself.
- Stay connected. Don’t lose touch with friends and other family members because caring is taking all your time – you’ll only end up feeling increasingly isolated. A support group might help too.
- Spend some time in nature. Maintaining a connection with the natural world can help lower stress levels and improve mood and sense of wellbeing.
- Keep up your hobbies and activities. Doing things you enjoy is important to help maintain your happiness levels – and allows you to focus on something other than your caregiving role.
- Laugh. They say laughter is the best medicine, so make time for it in your life. Watch a funny movie or read a funny book or meet up with a friend with a good sense of humour.