Senior Caregiver Burnout: Is the Burden Taking a Toll on You?
As a primary caregiver for an aging parent or loved one, it’s easy to get so caught up in meeting their needs and managing all of the responsibilities that you neglect your own mental and physical well-being. The demands of being a caregiver can become extremely overwhelming, taking a toll on your mind, body and emotional state. Without proper awareness and a balanced approach to this lifestyle, you may find yourself suffering the effects of caregiver burnout.
As the analogy of the oxygen mask on an airplane illustrates, you can’t effectively care for another unless you’ve attended to your own needs first. If you find yourself sacrificing critical needs like proper sleep, nutrition, exercise, downtime and recreation, you’re likely putting your own health at risk. In “emptying your tank,” so to speak, you eventually end up with little left for providing quality care to the senior in your life.
Research has shown that there can be real long-term effects of caregiver stress, including outcomes like depression and a decline in physical health. So, how can you be aware that you’re taking on too much as a caregiver? And what are some steps you can take to prevent a debilitating burnout? In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the all-too-common reality of the senior caregiver burden and provide experts tips on how to maintain a healthy approach.
A Population of Caregivers
The most recent Caregiving in the U.S. study, conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and the AARP Public Policy Institute, provides some insightful data regarding caregiving realities in our country:
- The estimated prevalence of caring for an adult is 16.6% or 39.8 million Americans.
- On average, caregivers spend 24.4 hours a week providing care to their loved one. Nearly one-quarter provides 41 or more hours of care a week.
- Nearly half of caregivers provide care to someone 75 years old or older.
- A majority of caregivers help their loved one with at least one Activity of Daily Living (ADL), with the most common being helping their care recipient get in and out of beds and chairs.
- The most difficult individual ADLs involve personal care activities, like incontinence, helping the recipient to and from the toilet and assisting with bathing/showering.
- Caregivers help, on average, with 4.2 out of 7 Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs), including transportation, grocery or other shopping and housework.
- Family caregivers are also increasingly performing tasks that nurses typically perform, including skilled activities like injections, tube feedings, catheter, and colostomy care, and many other complex care responsibilities.
- Most caregivers are working while providing care, resulting in impacts on their work, with some being forced to opt-out of the workforce altogether.
- When asked about the impact that caregiving has had on their health, 22% of caregivers felt their health has gotten worse as a result of caregiving.
- The longer a caregiver has been providing care, the more likely she or he is to report fair or poor health.
- One in five caregivers reports a high level of physical strain resulting from caregiving, while two in five consider their caregiving situation to be emotionally stressful.
These statistics paint a difficult reality for caregivers, one that often results in detrimental impacts on their mental and emotional state.
Signs and Symptoms of Caregiver Burnout
Caregiver burnout is defined by WebMD as “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. Burnout can occur when caregivers don't get the help they need, or if they try to do more than they are able.”
Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Feeling blue, irritable, hopeless, and helpless
- Changes in appetite, weight, or both
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Getting sick more often
- Feelings of wanting to hurt yourself or the person for whom you are caring
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
- Excessive use of alcohol and/or sleep medications
If you find yourself experiencing these types of issues in your own life as a caregiver for an elderly loved one, it’s time to examine your approach and take some steps toward restoring your own well-being.
Time to Take a Time-Out
First, understand that it’s perfectly natural to feel overwhelmed and overburdened by this very demanding responsibility of senior caregiving. Feeling frustrated or strained doesn’t mean you're a bad caregiver; it only means that you may be doing too much.
So if you begin to see the signs and symptoms of burnout, it’s essential to take a breather and find ways to begin caring for yourself again. Here are some helpful options to consider:
Check in with your physician.
Have you been neglecting your own health in the interest of caring for the senior in your life? It’s critical to check in with your doctor to ensure that you’re not at risk of suffering from any physical or mental health issues. This is also a great opportunity to access information about resources and support for caregivers. Be sure to let your doctor know if you feel you are unable to continue on as a caregiver for your aging parent or loved one.
Lean on others.
Given the service-oriented mindset of many caregivers, you may not be one who likes to complain. However, voicing your fears and frustrations can be a valuable tool in managing stress. Consider joining an online support group or simply sharing your feelings with a close family member or friend. In doing so, you give yourself the time and space to gain emotional support and mental clarity.
Protect your personal time.
Especially if you’re balancing work and family with the demands of caring for an aging loved one, it may seem like there simply aren't enough hours in the day. And if you attempt to squeeze all of your responsibilities into this limited time without mandating some of it for yourself, you’re likely to feel the very real “burn” of burnout. That’s why it’s paramount to claim some protected time for yourself. Even 15 minutes of reading, exercising, listening to music or taking a hot bath can help you relax and recharge.
Take advantage of respite care.
Respite care services offer temporary breaks for caregivers. Check out the assisted living communities in your area, and inquire about a respite or trial stay, which provides support for both you and your loved one. Some communities even have furnished apartments that allow for a convenient move-in process.
It’s abundantly clear that caregiving is no easy or simple responsibility. In fact, it may sometimes feel like a relentless, all-encompassing and around-the-clock job. Of course, there’s no single determinant of whether you’re doing too much. But understanding the realities of caregiver burnout and taking vital steps to keep it at bay can mean the difference between poor and optimal personal health AND your ability to adequately care for your loved one.
For more information and education on being the best caregiver for the senior in your life, get your free copy of The Essential Caregiver's Guide.
About Marissa Salvesen
My journey into the world of senior living began when I started working for United Methodist Homes in 2010. Starting as an Activities Director at one of our-winning assisted and independent living communities and then transitioning to Marketing and Promotions Manager for UMH, I now work as the Manager of Mission Development, fostering the Mission and Values of our organization. I love sharing stories about the many ways we build meaningful relationships and enrich the lives of those we serve, and am proud to be part of building UMH’s 140-year legacy of caring. Wondering what makes our communities such special places to live and work? Connect with me and find out!
Our Blog is a 2016 Platinum Generations Award Winner! The Generations Award is an annual international competition for excellence in senior marketing recognizing professionals who have communicated to the 50+ Mature Markets.