Family Caregivers: Just How Burnt Out Are You?

When you take on a caregiver role with your aging parents, you might not initially realize the toll it can take on your relationship and your health. The truth is, though adult children often readily accept family caregiving duties, most family caregivers don’t always know what they’re getting into or how to set boundaries that will protect their own mental and physical health. This can result in caregiver burnout, which can lead to all sorts of health complications and challenges.

There is good news, though. Not every family caregiver has to live through caregiver burnout. Prevention is key, and the best way to prevent it from happening in the first place is to notice the signs that it is approaching.

Dangers of Caregiver Burnout

Caregiver burnout, sometimes called caregiver fatigue, is a term that refers to a set of symptoms caused by the emotional and physical stresses of caregiving. Both professional and family caregivers can end up with caregiver burnout, but family caregivers tend to be more vulnerable because they simply don’t have the support system or practices to keep them feeling their best.

The Family Caregiver Alliance reports that more than 15 percent of family caregivers report their physical health has declined as a result of their caregiving responsibilities. That number also rises over time, showing that family caregivers become increasingly overwhelmed—and unhealthy—the longer they are in their caregiver role.

In addition, family caregivers report that their mental health declines the longer their caregiver role continues. More than 60 percent of family caregivers show clinically significant signs of depression. Whether you are just starting out in a caregiver role or if you have been a family caregiver for years, it is never too late to begin taking care of yourself.

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Early Warning Signs of Caregiver Burnout

Here are a few questions to ask yourself from time to time to ensure you are catching burnout symptoms before they escalate.

Am I having trouble sleeping?

Caregiver burnout creeps in slowly over time, with early signs starting in the bedroom. If you are noticing changes in sleep patterns, whether you are sleeping more or having trouble falling asleep in the first place, you could be in the early stages of caregiver burnout.

If you notice you are having trouble sleeping, take time to create a consistent bedtime routine. Your body will respond to sleep better when it knows the routine that leads up to it. Try putting your phone or tablet down at least 30 minutes before bed and then having a consistent routine that you personalize to your own preferences.

Is my physician aware of my caregiver role?

Keeping up with annual checkups and preventative care for yourself is a key component of avoiding caregiver burnout. However, many caregivers tend to put their loved one’s needs and appointments first and opt out of taking care of their own.

Be sure you are not only keeping your preventative care appointments, but are also talking to your physician about your family caregiver role. Your physician needs to know about this life event for your own health, and they can also offer guidance to keep your own mental and physical health a top priority.

Am I avoiding my friends?

Family caregivers isolate themselves for a variety of reasons. Maybe you have noticed that you are more likely nowadays to cancel dinner plans with your friends or skip out on that work networking function. You might feel too tired to attend, or you might be skipping out because you are losing interest, which could be a sign of depression.

If you find you are avoiding getting together with your friends, try to reestablish the connection by starting with keeping up with text messages. Or, respond “yes” to an invite with the promise to yourself that you only have to stay for an hour. Then, you can reevaluate it to see if you feel up to staying a bit longer.

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Am I angry or irritable?

Of course, everyone gets angry and cranky from time to time. However, family caregivers can find themselves growing irritable more often than not due to the extra stress they are experiencing. If your partner, friends, or children have commented on your grouchy mood more frequently than usual, you might be on your way to caregiver burnout.

If you are feeling grouchy or irritable, try deep breathing throughout the day. Try breathing in for four seconds, then breathing out for another four seconds. Many people also turn to meditation apps to help them destress and reset their minds. You’ll be surprised by how it helps your mood and energizes your coping skills.

Am I coping in a healthy way?

We all have different coping skills that help us pull through times of stress. However, unhealthy coping habits, such as overusing alcohol or drugs, can increase the risk of caregiver burnout and health problems. If you are noticing that you are drinking more than usual or you are using another unhealthy coping habit to get you through the day, it is time to ask for help from your physician and family.

Am I getting sick more often?

Family caregivers suffering from burnout can experience a decreased immune system response. This means that if you are noticing you are getting sick more often and for longer periods of time, you could be in the middle of burnout.

If you are feeling sick more often, try boosting your immune system by drinking plenty of water throughout the day, eating a varied and healthy diet, and incorporating exercise into your daily routine.

How to Get the Support You Deserve

Caregivers are compassionate and always willing to help, but that doesn’t mean caregiver burnout has to happen to you or a family member. If you are able to catch the early signs of burnout, you can make the choices you need to put your health first. After all, you can’t care for your aging loved one if you are ill yourself.

Fortunately, there are ways you can get the support and help you need so that your family caregiving role doesn’t make you emotionally or physically ill.

Ask for family assistance.

Family caregiving can feel like a lonely task, but all too often, siblings or other family members simply don’t know how to help. Try to send out a monthly email outlining tasks with which you could use some assistance so that your siblings and others in your support system can sign up to help you tackle them.

Sign up for delivery services such as pharmacy delivery, GrubHub, and Instacart.

The more you can find ways to make your caregiving time more effective, the more you can find the time you need to rest. With so many affordable delivery services these days, try outsourcing some of your regular tasks. Let someone else pick up your loved one’s prescription, have their favorite meal from their favorite restaurant delivered, or just plain avoid the stress of the grocery store parking lot. While these services may charge a small fee, it’s often worth it, just to make your life easier. Additionally, be sure to check with local agencies and senior organizations that might provide these services for free.

Explore other community services that can step in to assist your loved one, such as senior transportation services.

Your loved one may live in a place where senior services can step in to provide support. Call their local senior services department to inquire about senior transportation services, medical equipment rentals, or other services that could help your loved one and yourself.

Schedule respite care services.

Finally, make sure you are scheduling time to rest at least monthly. Respite services are designed to give caregivers a break, so take advantage of them. Respite care can be something as simple as your sibling sitting with your loved one for a few hours while you go out to lunch with a friend.

Learn more about the benefits of senior living for you and for your loved one.

Senior living can be an optimal solution for your loved one and for yourself. Today’s senior living communities don’t just take care of your parent or loved one’s physical needs. They provide a community of friends and caring staff, provide tons of amenities and enriching activities, and can truly take both your and your loved one from struggling to thriving. You may be delaying a decision that can improve your health and your loved one’s health. Start the conversation with your parent or loved one—you might be surprised by how well it goes. 

Learn more about senior living options and how they can make everyone’s life easier by downloading our free resource, Understanding Senior Living Lifestyle Options.

Remember to take care of yourself so that you can better care for your loved one. We’re cheering you on.

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