Caregiver Burnout: Definition, Symptoms, Causes and Prevention

Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. It may accompany a change in attitude - from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned. 

Burnout may happen when you’re not receiving the help that you need, or try to do more than you’re able. This may be physically or financially. Caregivers who feel "burnt out" may experience fatigue, irritability, stress, anxiety, and depression. 

One of the biggest contributors to caregiver burnout is guilt - many of us feel guilty if we spend time on ourselves rather than on their ill or elderly loved ones.

What Are the Symptoms of Caregiver Burnout?

The symptoms of caregiver burnout may include:

  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Feeling blue, cranky, hopeless, and helpless
  • Changes in appetite, weight, or both
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Getting sick more often
  • Emotional and physical exhaustion
  • Using alcohol and/or sleep medications too much
  • Feelings of wanting to hurt yourself or the person for whom you are caring

*Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 if you think you might hurt yourself or anyone else.*

What Causes Caregiver Burnout?

Caregivers often are so busy caring for others that they tend to forget about self care. Other contributors to caregiver burnout include:

  • Role confusion:  You may feel about your role as a caregiver and as a spouse, child, or friend. It can be difficult to separate these roles from each other.
  • Unrealistic expectations: You may expect your care to have a positive effect on the health and happiness of the person you care for. These expectations may be unrealistic for patients or loved ones who have a progressive disease such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.
  • Lack of control: You may not have all the resources, skills, finances and time in order to manage your loved one’s care well. 
  • Unreasonable demands and guilt: You may take on way too much, partly because you see providing care as your job alone and you feel guilty when asking for help or time to take care of yourself.
  • Other factors: You may fixate on caring for your loved one so much that you don’t recognize that you’re burnt out. Lack of recognition can impair your day-to-day functionalities and you may even get sick yourself.

How Can I Prevent Caregiver Burnout?

Here are some steps you can take to help prevent caregiver burnout:

  • Find someone you trust. Find a trusted friend or family member to listen to your feelings and frustrations. Sometimes an open ear can lift a lot of weight off our shoulders.
  • Set realistic goals. Accept that you may need help with caregiving, and turn to others for help with some tasks. 
  • Take advantage of respite care services. Respite care provides a temporary break for caregivers. This can range from a few hours of in-home care to a short stay in a nursing home or assisted living facility.
  • Accept your feelings. Having negative feelings like frustration or anger is normal. It does not mean you are a bad person or a bad caregiver.
  • Don't forget about yourself. Set aside “me time”, even if it's just an hour or two. Remember that self care is a necessity- not a luxury.

The demands of caregiving can be exhausting and overwhelming but with these steps, you can take control of your stress and regain a sense of balance, joy and hope in your life.

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