Where Is the Line Between Caregiver Stress and Burnout?

Every person who becomes a caregiver will have unique personality traits, yet we nearly always share certain feelings and experiences as we travel a road similar to one another. That's one reason that caregivers often turn to other caregivers for support. It's a version of the adage that we need to walk in another's shoes in order to truly understand what they feel.

One of those shared experiences is a certain amount of stress. Some personalities cope with the ever changing, nearly always challenging, business of caring for another adult with health issues better than others. A positive attitude and a flexible approach can go a long way as we feel our way along the sometimes uncertain path a caregiver must follow. But even the most laid back person is going to feel stressed by the responsibilities of caregiving from time to time. That's normal and to be expected. With some care, people generally bounce back. What caregivers need to watch for is burnout.

Where is that line between manageable caregiver stress and caregiver burnout?

Being a caregiver can affect our marriages, our parenting, and our employment as well as other areas of our lives. We often are drawn into caregiving by love and compassion for our sick parents or spouse and our need to be there to support them. We feel stressed from time to time, but we cope, generally by not looking too far ahead. It's a rare person who, when they first start providing care, really thinks about the fact that this situation could go on for years.

Perhaps if we knew what the future held we may be too emotionally frozen to do what needs doing, so it's not all bad to be somewhat short sighted as we begin our caregiving journey.

As time goes on, however, the stress we've handled well may take its toll, so before we get too buried we should start developing a plan to take care of ourselves. If we don't, both the caregiver and the care receiver may suffer. That being said, how do we recognize when we may be crossing the line from caregiver stress to burnout?

  • We ask ourselves about our attitude toward our care receiver. Are we providing care out of love or out of guilt? Are we filled with resentment because we have no time for ourselves? Are we losing ground physically and emotionally?

  • Since it's entirely possible to get so caught up in caregiving that we don't recognize the signs of self neglect, we listen to our friends or others who care about us. We don't have to take their advice or even think they are right. But if we are told by others that the toll of caregiving is starting to show in our self-neglect or in other ways, we should at least consider the fact that they may have a point.

  • We ask ourselves if we can occasionally feel happiness and/or joy. Life isn't all about being happy, but if we are so swamped with caring for others that we almost never can feel lighthearted, we need to look at burnout.

How do we avoid burnout?

  • We research available respite services and determine what type of help if any may be best for our circumstances. Checking your state website for aging or caregiving services can help you find information about local resources. You may not need services yet, but you should be aware of what is available.

  • If family and friends can't - or won't - provide enough relief, in-home care from an agency is one step we can take if we need a break from our caregiving routine. Sometimes just knowing someone else is available to watch our loved one or take over a few of our duties can help us avoid burnout.

  • Adult day care is another option. Many care receivers become bored and even depressed because they are under-stimulated and have little peer interaction. A few hours at an adult day facility gives the care receiver social stimulation as well as activities that may preserve a sense of dignity. Again, having some time away from the care receiver can refresh the caregiver enough to get back into the routine with an improved attitude.

  • When a primary caregiver is close to burnout, moving your loved one to an assisted living facility or a nursing home may be the best option. Many people feel deep discomfort and guilt over placing a loved one in a care center, especially if the person fights the move. Even then, if the caregiver is nearing burnout, a move to a facility can be the best for both parties. Under those circumstances, you will remain a caregiver, but you won't have to shoulder the responsibility all alone. When your loved one moves to a care facility, you become part of a care team. You'll also, once again, be able to be the son, daughter or spouse rather than the sole provider of wearing physical care, since much of that is being done by professionals.

How do we take better care of ourselves?

  • We make eating well, exercising and caring for the spiritual side of ourselves a priority.

  • We also keep up with at least some of the friendships we've enjoyed. That is hard when our time is so precious and we hardly have the "freedom" to run needed errands and give the house a surface dusting. However, being a caregiver long-term demands that we practice some self-care if we are to avoid burnout and deep seated resentment.

  • A support group where we can "unload" our stories about caregiving challenges in a safe environment can be exceptionally helpful for many people. Vocalizing or writing out our feelings of exhaustion, frustration or stress in such a group, whether in person or online, can lighten our load. We know we aren't alone even when we have our darkest thoughts. We aren't bad people if we occasionally resent our situation. We are doing our best even if we aren't perfect. These people understand.

  • If guilt over getting help for your potential burnout by hiring outside care becomes too much, professional counseling could help. Most counselors will applaud your efforts to take care of yourself while you care for others. That is healthy and good for everyone concerned.

Being a caregiver for someone we love can be an honor, but letting caregiving become our whole life is unhealthy over the long term. Balance is the key to surviving and even thriving as we care for our loved ones. Taking steps to limit stress can help us find that balance.

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Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at mindingourelders.com.