Caregiver Burnout: A Pervasive Problem

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Dear Candid Caregiver:

My mom passed two years ago and my dad hasn’t done well since. Recently he had a stroke. My sister, who lives 1,000 miles away, came out for mom’s funeral, and she also visited for a few days after dad’s stroke, but she has a job and a family and couldn’t stay long. Now, dad’s been diagnosed with vascular dementia. Realistically, I’m the sole caregiver. I have two teenaged children, a husband who is, so far, supportive, and a job. I’m already beginning to feel burned out after just a few months. What can I do to help myself get through this and still take care of my dad? — Frazzled

Dear Frazzled:

Burnout is a pervasive problem for family caregivers, especially those who have no time to get away from the ongoing emotional and physical demands of caring for an ailing family member. Your situation is a classic example: One adult child who is still living in the parents’ community while other siblings live somewhere across the country (or world) and have little time and/or ability to help out.

Your feelings are warning you, so take yourself seriously. Nearly all caregiving brings stress, and sometimes it’s hard to see the line between caregiver stress and caregiver burnout. Below are some of my top suggestions:

Determine priorities: It’s time to develop a plan so that you can maintain your own health, your relationship with your husband, be a mother to your children, remain a dependable employee, and still take care of your dad. It’s hard to prioritize under these conditions, but seeing your life laid out in front of you can help you feel a little more organized. Number every segment of your life in the order that seems most pressing. They are all number one, right? That’s because they are all important. Don’t worry about it. You’ve still got the outline of a plan.

Set realistic boundaries: Now that you have a list of what you’re facing, begin to set some boundaries in all areas of your life. You can take each segment and jot (or type) a few notes about a boundary that you feel you can’t cross. This means being realistic about what you can and cannot do. You need to state clearly, even if it’s only to yourself, that you can do so much but no more. This is about knowing your limits and sticking to them. Yes, this too will change, but you must start somewhere, so begin here.

Make adjustments as needed: Often we start out completely embroiled in our caregiving roles because there has been some emergency and we fail to take a step back once the big emergency is over to re-evaluate our role. Then there is the opposite situation — what I call the creep-up effect — where we start helping out a little bit and then a little more and then more and more and more. Your situation shows elements of both. You are rightly afraid of burnout if you stay on your current course, so you need to make adjustments to your life. That may mean going back to the first points mentioned. Use your priority and boundary lists as fluid guidelines. Make adjustments as needed, staying realistic in your goals.

Watch your own health: You are likely so tired of sitting in clinic offices waiting for your loved one’s turn with the physician of the day that the idea of making an appointment for your own health is repellant. You figure it can wait. Don’t do that. Please. Caregivers have a high rate of mental illness, including depression. Additionally, many a woman has skipped her mammograms for several years only to discover that she has advanced breast cancer that could have been easily handled earlier had she had regular mammograms. All aspects of your health need attention.

Admit that you are human: You want to be the perfect caregiver like you want to be the perfect parent. Neither will happen. You are a human being. Don’t fall into clinical anxiety or just plain unearned caregiver guilt because you feel that you are imperfect as a caregiver. Understand that every caregiver is imperfect. Do your best. Often your best means hiring some help. That is not only perfectly fine; it is admirable.

Seek support: Finding a support group, either online or in person, can be a literal lifesaver. People in support groups will understand if you tell them that you lost your temper with your dad today, or that you just want to run away. These groups serve as an understanding outlet as well as a source of advice. Support from your peers, and professionals if you feel that you need more support than your peers can provide, can make all the difference between just being stressed by caregiving and becoming burned out. Make self-care a priority and you and your dad will do much better.

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