Caring for a senior loved one, whether you do it daily or manage it from a distance, is hard work. It is also lonely work and can make the typical family caregiver feel isolated from their peers. Unfortunately, caregiving can lead to serious consequences, including caregiver stress and burnout, which increases the chances of a variety of health conditions.
The Family Caregiver Alliance estimates that 44 million Americans offer unpaid assistance to family members and friends who are older or living with disabilities within the greater community. Although that number of family caregivers is large, the majority of those caregivers are not prepared for their role or for the physical and emotional demands that caregiving can require. Lack of support, resources, and training can lead to caregiver burnout and other physical and emotional health concerns.
What Is Caregiver Burnout?
The Cleveland Clinic defines caregiver burnout, or compassion fatigue, as the state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that results from caregiving. Both professional and family caregivers can experience burnout, and burnout is not just reserved for the caregivers of seniors. Instead, burnout can happen to anyone who is caring for others. In all cases, serious health consequences can follow if the burnout is not resolved in a healthy way.
Symptoms of Caregiver Burnout
Although every caregiver experiences burnout differently, there are some general possible signs that you are living with burnout. Sleep disturbance, whether it’s insomnia, sleeping too much, or somewhere in between, is one of the hallmark signs of caregiver burnout. Other emotional and physical signs that could point to caregiver burnout include:
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Getting sick more often, and staying sick for longer than usual
- Feeling anxious, depressed, or both
- Withdrawing from social opportunities, friends, or hobbies
- Feeling disorganized or out of control
- Feeling cranky or irritable more often than usual
Burnout leaves caregivers in a state of continuous physical and emotional stress. Without the right resources and support, ongoing burnout can lead to increased risk for heart disease, obesity, depression or anxiety, and a decreased immune system. Caregivers living with burnout can also turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol, drugs, or overeating. Even worse, caregiver burnout can lead to elder abuse or a deterioration of the caregiver’s relationship with their loved one. In all cases, caregivers can suffer from serious emotional and physical health concerns that can make their caregiver role even harder to maintain.
Fortunately, family caregivers can find a balance between their caregiving role and their own health with the right resources in place. The first line of defense when it comes to caregiver burnout is support from other family members or friends who can step in regularly. If you are the primary caregiver or advocate for your loved one, build a team of others who can help out with tasks so that you aren’t bearing the load alone. You can ask your siblings or other family members to help out, but when you do ask, do not be vague. Ask for specific things that would be helpful. For example, say, “Can you take Mom to her doctor’s appointment on Friday?” or, “Can you grocery shop for Dad every other week?” Specifying concrete tasks will help you to solicit the assistance you need.
Next, avoid caregiver burnout by scheduling time to rest on your personal calendar. Make a commitment to go for a walk each morning and meet with your friends for dinner at least once per month. These small commitments are important and can improve your overall health while giving you the respite you need from your caregiving role.
Finally, look to the greater community to find resources that could lighten your caregiving load. Meals on Wheels programs deliver nutritious and healthy meals daily for seniors, while senior transportation services can get your loved one to and from medical appointments or other common destinations for a reasonable price. You can also find caregiver support groups that you can participate in locally, and meet peers who are caregiving for their loved ones as well.
Being a caregiver is a role that deserves endless praise and admiration but can also be very taxing and difficult to keep up. There will come a time when you’re ready to take a step back and focus your effort on being a loved one, not a caregiver. When that happens, we’ll be here for you.
At The Arbor Company, our communities offer senior living and a lifestyle focused on wellness for seniors and their family members. Living at home alone is not always the best-case scenario for a senior or their loved ones, and our communities feature resources that will keep everyone in the family feeling their best. Find an Arbor community near you to schedule a tour. You just may find the answer to your own personal health right inside our thriving community.