Being a caregiver for another person—whether they are ill, aging, or living with a disability, is a loving and noble role. But constantly caring for others, regardless of how close the relationship is, can also be taxing. Caregivers should take stock of their own well-being from time to time, and if signs of burnout begin to show, that may be a signal that it’s time to share the responsibility with others.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Inpathy is joining the nationwide effort to increase awareness about the importance of mental health. The 2018 theme is “Mental Health Starts With Us: Mental Health Care for Mental Health Professionals.” Inpathy is starting the conversation about caregiver burnout, launching this campaign with the goal of increasing awareness of the mental health of mental health professionals and caregivers.
Caregivers may never recognize signs of burnout or may ignore them in favor of the people for whom they provide care. If you are a caregiver or know someone who fills that role, you should at the very least be aware of burnout symptoms, so that you can catch them before they get too bad. A caregiver who is sick cannot provide their best to those who need it!
Signs of Caregiver Burnout
Some signs of burnout for caregivers are the same as symptoms of depression and stress. According to WebMD, burnout “may be accompanied by a change in attitude—from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned. Caregivers who are “burned out” may experience fatigue, stress, anxiety, and depression. Many caregivers also feel guilty if they spend time on themselves rather than on their ill or elderly loved ones”. This guilt, and the change in attitude, make it extra challenging to help a caregiver or for a caregiver to help themselves.
Why Should Burnout be On the Caregiver Radar?
Like any role, a caregiver can only perform at their peak when they are in peak condition. But the role of caregiver comes with the extra stressors of putting someone else’s needs before their own, and this can sometimes go too far. When you or a caregiver you know starts heading for burnout, it is important to take action as soon as possible. Symptoms of burnout can include social withdrawal, changes in appetite and/or weight, changes in sleep, falling ill more easily and more often, and increased irritability.
Even more severe symptoms include self-harm and abuse of alcohol and/or medications. In an article on caregiver burnout on AgingCare.com explains that this condition can get even worse. “Sadly, thoughts of suicide and even causing harm to their care recipients are not rare for stressed caregivers. Research cited by the National Center for Elder Abuse shows that 20 percent of caregivers ‘live in fear that they will become violent.’…Multiple studies have found that an estimated one-third of caregivers have verbally abused a family member. Acknowledging negative thoughts and taking steps to ensure they do not become destructive actions is crucial”.
Taking Care of the Care Giver
One line of defense against burnout is building a support system. Caregivers can seek support whether they are professionals or providing care for friends or family. Joining a support group has proven to reduce caregiver depression and other signs of stress. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic performed an experiment to determine the effects of a support group on professional caregivers. “…the gains seen in the ACG [Authentic Connections] group remained pronounced even three months after the ACG program ended. According to the study assessment results, there were notable differences between the two groups in many areas, including depression and stress, parenting stress, feeling love, having self-compassion, and physical affection”.
Outside of support groups, caregivers should have a network of friends and family who encourage self-care. An article at VITAS healthcare lists some every-day steps that can help prevent caregiver burnout. These include both actions the caregiver can take for themselves and actions with which other members can assist. In addition to “Ask for help…delegate…get up 15 minutes earlier and use the time just for you…”, the article recommends looking into family-leave benefits if you are a caregiver as well as working, and considering hospice respite care to offer some relief for the caregiver.
Taking care of your physical and mental health is an essential element to providing care for others. If you or someone you know regularly provides care for someone who cannot care for themselves, make sure that they are also practicing self-care, or finding support from outside sources.