As the name implies, caregivers take care of others, often seniors or others who have a mental or physical condition that makes it difficult for them to engage in everyday activities. While some caregivers are paid employees managed by agencies, far more are informal volunteers, usually family members who have no formal training. As a result, they can end up feeling frustrated and burned out by their caregiving duties.
If you’re a caregiver, realizing what’s happening early on will help you identify and manage problems before you hit your caregiving breaking point. Symptoms of stress and burnout to look out for include:
- gaining or losing weight
- always feeling tired, no matter how much you sleep
- difficulty sleeping
- becoming easily irritated or angry, especially at the person you’re caring for
- losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- trouble concentrating
- drinking, eating or smoking more
- getting sick frequently
- new health problems or existing ones getting worse
If you’ve developed a cluster of these symptoms, that’s a strong indication that you’re experiencing caregiver stress. Read on to find out what to do about it.
- Ask for and accept help.
You don’t have to do everything on your own, and it’s not a sign of failure to accept help from others — or even to hire a professional caregiver to give you a respite. When other people offer to help, say yes and explain what would be most helpful for you, whether it’s taking care of your patient for a couple hours or making dinner, so you don’t have to. And if others don’t offer to help, don’t be afraid to ask. If you haven’t expressed your frustration, they might have no idea that you could really use a helping hand when it comes to caregiving.
- Don’t neglect your own health.
Whether paid or volunteer, caretakers often put their own health on the back burner in favor of taking care of patients. While this may seem noble, it can actually backfire, especially if the caregiver gets sick from neglecting their own health and then passes the illness along to their patient or loved one. Keep up with all your regular health activities, such as annual physicals and vaccinations. Visit the doctor if you feel sick, and if the person you’re taking care of is immuno-compromised, try to avoid exposing them to whatever you have.
- Take care of your own body.
Caring for your physical health extends way beyond your annual physical or a quick trip to the clinic if you get a bad cold. There are many things you can do to manage or even prevent illnesses and aches. Caregivers are on their feet a lot, so wear supportive therapeutic shoes and don graduated compression socks to keep your legs and feet healthy all day. Wear comfortable, non-binding clothes that won’t cut into your circulation. Sit, stand, walk and lift objects with good form to avoid hurting your back. Eat a generally healthy diet that focuses on lean proteins, whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables — and consume only small amounts of sugars and fats.
- Exercise regularly.
Physical activity is a great way to manage stress, and can even ameliorate serious mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. If you’re never exercised before, now is an excellent time to start. If doing a full workout sounds like too much, aim for just 10 or 15 minutes of movement at a time, such as walking around the neighborhood, and then build up from there. Try out different forms of working out to keep things interesting, such as cycling, Pilates, yoga, boxing, dance, aerobics and more.
- Set small goals you can achieve.
Caregiving can feel overwhelming, especially if you’re already experiencing stress and burnout. Rather than put it on yourself to totally overhaul your caregiving approach all at once, focus on small, achievable goals that have a timeline attached to them. Maybe you want to take a half hour break twice a week or cook two healthy homemade dinners a month or wear compression socks every workday. If you have broader goals, such as have more ‘me time’ or be healthier,) try to break them down into these more concrete tasks. Create a checklist or some other type of record so you can track your progress and celebrate all your victories.
- Get enough sleep.
Sleep deprivation, even it’s mild, increases your risk for all sorts of negative events, like catching a cold, developing heart disease, high blood pressure, colorectal cancer, dementia and obesity, and getting into car accidents. Not getting enough sleep can exacerbate other physical, mental and emotional issues, including feeling burnout from caregiving. Whether it’s seven or nine hours a night, try to get the right amount of sleep for you whenever you can.
- Seek out support.
Caregiving can be lonely and isolating, and connecting with others is a great way to get out of the bubble. Of course, you should reach out to friends and family, but they might not able to fully empathize with your caregiving experience if they haven’t gone through something similar. For that, you might consider looking into a caregivers’ support group in your area, where you can meet people dealing with the same challenges and feelings as you are right now.
- Create a life outside of caregiving.
Seeking out social support is an important part of maintaining your life outside of caregiving. Go out to dinner, take in a movie, sign up for art or fitness classes, try a new hobby, read a book, take the dog for a walk, go for a hike or bike ride, start a garden — whatever seems interesting and energizing to you. While it might take several tries to find the perfect activity, once you do, you’ll be surprised how much it can enrich your life.
Make Time for Yourself
Caregiving is a demanding job — and it is a job, even if you’re not getting paid to do it. Try one or more of these eight strategies to take care of yourself and get a break from caregiving because you deserve it.