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How to Avoid Caregiver Burnout

September 9, 2022

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Taking care of another person is among the noblest things someone can do. And as caregivers know all too well, it is also among the most exhausting. Family caregivers provide vital support to their senior loved ones, but they also run a high risk of suffering burnout, which affects their physical and emotional health—as well as their capacity to provide care.

This article will help you understand the risks and realities of caregiver burnout, as well as the steps you can take today to avoid it. 

What is caregiver burnout?

You’re probably familiar with the term “burnout,” even if you aren’t sure how to put it into words. The Cleveland Clinic defines caregiving burnout as “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. It may be accompanied by a change in attitude, from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned.” 

Burnout as a condition was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger. The German-born American psychologist was one of the first researchers to closely study the effects of severe stress and exhaustion. Specifically, he noticed that people who worked in caregiving professions—such as doctors and nurses—were especially prone to chronic fatigue and its impact on long-term health. Today, society is much better at recognizing burnout wherever it occurs, though people in the medical profession, as well as family caregivers, remain especially prone to this pressure.

Burnout goes beyond physical exhaustion, as the feeling of hopelessness that accompanies this long-term distress takes a toll on your emotional and spiritual health, as well. For many caregivers, the symptoms of burnout often overlap with the symptoms of depression and chronic anxiety. While general exhaustion is often considered temporary, burnout is a chronic problem. 

Common symptoms of caregiver burnout include:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Denial
  • Depression
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Inability to focus
  • Sleeplessness
  • Irritability
  • Health problems
  • Social withdrawal

As Freudenberger’s research revealed, caregivers—including the more than 50 million family caregivers in the United States—are at greater risk of burnout than the general population. And according to AgingInPlace.org, research shows that 85% of family caregivers do not receive any respite care (temporary assisted living care allowing the caregiver some time off from caregiving duties), while half of family caregivers say they struggle to maintain the balance between their responsibilities and personal lives. 

Whether you are currently experiencing caregiving burnout or are simply concerned with how to avoid it, there are many options available to help mitigate its symptoms or prevent it entirely.

Prioritize Your Personal Health

To provide your best care, you need to take care of yourself. It seems simple enough, and yet the most simple of best practices can be quickly abandoned in seasons of stress. You may tell yourself it’s temporary, that you’ll focus on your health when the situation stabilizes. This is why you must prioritize your own health from the start. Examples include: 

Exercise: Most people don’t require large amounts of exercise to feel better, as even basic exercises like walking, stretching, or yoga can make a big difference. A simple 10-minute walk can provide two hours of lift to your mood!

Eat well: People often crave sweets or greasy foods while under stress. These refined sugars and carbohydrates may provide a short-term lift but inevitably lead to a crash in energy. Instead, ensure you eat plenty of plant-based foods and prioritize healthier animal proteins such as fish. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and walnuts, actually work to improve your mood.

Follow good sleep hygiene: Most people need between 7.5–9 hours of sleep per night. If you struggle to get enough sleep, there are simple ways to improve your slumber. These include going to bed and waking up at the same times each day, limiting caffeine intake after lunch, getting daily exercise, and turning off your screens 30–60 minutes before bedtime. 

Minimize stimulants and depressants: Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol all give the perception of helping us when we are tired or stressed. In reality, caffeine and nicotine increase anxiety, and alcohol can deepen feelings of depression and reduce the quality of your sleep. Under stress, we are more likely to become addicted to these substances, which will only worsen in a season of burnout.

Build a Support System

Caregiving can be a lonely endeavor and feelings of isolation will only contribute to burnout. You need regular contact with people who care about and support you to help stave off the effects of burnout. There are many beneficial types of support available to you:

Friends and family: Identify a small number of your closest friends and/or family and check in with them. More importantly, ask them to check in with you. Phone calls, visits, and even simple text messages provide a welcome distraction, invite encouragement, and allow you an opportunity to share how you’re feeling. 

Back-up caregivers: Personal responsibilities like work, errands, and appointments don’t stop just because you’re a caregiver, and every family caregiver needs backup. Talk to siblings, family friends, neighbors, or a home-health provider to see if they can share in your responsibilities. The additional help provides you with vital time to step away, recharge, exercise, and attend to responsibilities.

Respite care: This vital service temporarily places your loved one in assisted living care. Many facilities and organizations offer this service, which can provide primary caregivers with a 1- to 2-week break to take a vacation, attend a business trip or conference, or simply catch up on sleep and personal responsibilities. 

Support groups: With more than 50 million family caregivers in America, you are not alone, and odds are there is a group of fellow caregivers in your community who would love to listen to and share in your experience. 

Counseling: Family caregiving can give rise to complicated emotions, and there is no better way to unpack your feelings than with the help of a professional counselor or therapist. Many confidential, licensed options are available at a variety of price points, including a clinical psychologist, faith-based providers, non-profit counseling centers, and online providers like Better Help. For recommendations, ask a trusted friend, doctor, or religious leader.

Embrace Simplicity

When you’re caring for an aging parent or loved one, you want to minimize as many distractions or ancillary responsibilities as possible. And you have more distractions than you realize. 

Centralize communication: If you find yourself providing one-on-one updates to a large number of family or friends, you can free up a lot of time and stress by sharing updates via a private personal blog, closed Facebook group, or a tool like the Connected Caregiver app. Our app is designed to help caregivers organize everything they need to effectively care for their loved one and communicate with everyone involved. Caregivers can store documents like insurance cards and test results as well as claim important appointments like transportation to a doctor visit. This helps keep everyone on the same page and the stress of worrying something important may slip through the cracks.

Use technology: If your loved one is capable of some independence, technology can allow you to step away for extended periods and still monitor their health and safety. Tools like Connected Caregiver™ use secure, smart medical devices to provide regular updates on vital health statistics like blood pressure and glucose. They also provide immediate medical alerts via a wearable device that can automatically summon emergency help in the event of a fall or other medical emergency. This is essential tech for every family caregiver.

Hire a cleaning service: Many family caregivers spend a lot of time keeping up with household chores. If you’re financially able, hiring outside help for either your loved one’s home or your own home can significantly reduce stress. 

Educate yourself: There is no greater driver of anxiety than the unknown. Educate yourself on your loved one’s medical condition. Knowledge will reduce anxiety, clarify plans, and help you ask better questions at doctor’s appointments.

Every family caregiver wants what’s best for their aging parents. Burnout not only impacts your ability to provide the best care possible — it can also cause long-term damage to your physical and emotional health. You owe it to yourself and to your loved one to fight the causes of burnout and take steps to prioritize your well-being. So, talk to them about your plans, adjust your schedule, and connect with your support systems. If you do, you can keep burnout at bay and invest in your loved one’s health and well-being in the manner you both deserve.

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