Caring for an aging loved one can be one of the most rewarding experiences. It can also be one of the most stressful and overwhelming. According to Caregiving in the U.S., a research report by the AARP Public Policy Institute and the National Alliance for Caregiving, caregivers spend on average 24.4 hours a week providing care to their loved one, and nearly one-quarter provide 41 or more hours of care a week. When caregivers become so busy caring for others that they neglect their own emotional, physical or spiritual health, they often experience what is known as caregiver burnout.
What Is Caregiver Burnout?
Taking care of a chronically ill spouse or elderly parent is a stressful experience. Caregiving often creates physical and psychological strain over extended periods of time. It is accompanied by high levels of unpredictability and uncontrollability. It often leads to secondary stress in other areas, including work and family relationships. In fact, caregiving has so many features of a chronic stress experience that researchers have used it as a model for studying the health effects of chronic stress.
When caregivers don’t get help to handle the stress, they often experience a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that may be accompanied by a change in attitude from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned. This is known as caregiver burnout.
What Causes Caregiver Burnout?
There are many stressors involved with caregiving, including the patient’s physical disabilities, cognitive impairment and problem behaviors, as well as the type and intensity of care provided. Here are some of the most common factors that can contribute to a caregiver feeling burned out.
Many caregivers feel they had no choice in taking on their caregiving role. The shift in roles from adult child to caregiver for an aging parent or from spouse to caregiver for an ill spouse takes its toll. Not only can it be hard for the caregiver to separate their role as caregiver from their other role as a child or spouse, but it is also difficult to see a loved one in need of help. Caregivers who had no choice in taking on their caregiving role are more vulnerable to caregiver burnout than caregivers who feel they had a choice in taking on this responsibility.
Many caregivers hope the love and care they show their loved ones will have a positive effect on their health and happiness. It can be especially disheartening for caregivers when their loved one’s condition continues to deteriorate despite their caregiving efforts. Caregivers often feel guilty about being unable to make their loved ones as comfortable as they could be.
Nearly 20 percent of caregivers’ report experiencing financial strain because of providing care. From paying doctor bills to reducing their hours at work, caregivers often find themselves facing financial pressures. The longer a caregiver has been caring, the more likely they are to feel financial strain.
Fear or Uncertainty
Caregivers often feel ill-prepared to effectively plan, manage and organize their loved one's care. According to Caregiving in the U.S., more than 8 out of 10 caregivers said that they could use more information on or help with caregiving topics such as keeping their loved one safe at home, managing their own stress and making end-of-life decisions.
Demands of Care
Many caregivers help their loved one with at least one activity of daily living, such as getting dressed, getting in and out of beds and chairs, and bathing or showering. Caregivers’ responsibilities often extend to communicating with health care providers, advocating for services and monitoring their loved one’s health. Providing round-the-clock care can take a heavy toll on a caregiver.
For many, caregiving takes over their life. They take on all the responsibilities of caregiving without regular breaks or assistance, and they struggle to maintain personal relationships. Whether they struggle to get out of the house or they feel isolated from the rest of the world when they do, caregiving can make it difficult to connect with others.
What are the Signs of Caregiver Burnout?
The symptoms of caregiver burnout are similar to the symptoms of stress and depression. They include:
- Anxiety, depression and irritability
- Feeling tired and run down
- Difficulty sleeping
- Overreacting to minor nuisances
- New or worsening health problems
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling increasingly resentful
- Drinking, smoking or eating more
- Neglecting responsibilities
- Cutting back on leisure activities.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help prevent caregiver burnout such as finding ways to feel empowered, asking for help, giving yourself a break, taking care of your health and joining a support group.