How to overcome caregiver burnout

Being a caregiver to a loved one can take a serious toll on your own physical, mental, and emotional health. Use these tips for coping with the top causes of caregiver burnout from medical professionals and family caregivers who’ve been there.

Caregiver burnout: An elderly Asian woman pushes an elderly Asan man in a wheelchair

Becoming a family caregiver is a little like becoming a parent. You know it takes love, commitment, and sacrifice. But you don’t fully understand how it can change your life until you’re in the trenches of caregiver burnout. 

While caregiving can be very rewarding, it can also take a toll on your physical and emotional health. More than a third of caregivers feel high emotional stress, according to a 2020 report by the National Alliance for Caregiving. And 21% rank their own health as only fair or poor. 

It’s not all bad news, according to an AARP survey of caregivers. Yes, many did say they felt stressed, worried, and overwhelmed. But more than 90% also said their positive emotions — such as feeling pleased that they can help a loved one — beat out the negative ones. More than half also said they found unexpected joy in caregiving.  

The key to avoiding caregiver burnout is learning to cope with the challenges and changes. “It’s okay to not be okay sometimes and to feel like the ground is constantly shifting under you,” says Tracy Wharton, PhD, LCSW. Wharton, a former family caregiver, is a therapist at Live Oak Behavioral Health in Maitland, Florida, and principal research scientist for the National Network of Public Health Institutes. “But your health — including your emotional health — is just as important as your care recipient’s.” 

Laura Akgerman, the disability services coordinator for Ohio AgrAbility & Ohio State University Extension in Columbus, agrees. Akgerman manages the organization’s caregiver support program. After helping care for her elderly father, Akgerman knows the challenges firsthand. “If you’re burned out, you’re less healthy, less capable, less focused. And that won’t do your care recipient or you any good.” Akgerman and other experts weigh in below on how to protect yourself from the main sources of caregiver burnout. 

Did you know that many health insurance plans offer free programs that help members manage stress and anxiety? Ask your health plan about their offerings.

Acknowledge feelings of loss and grief

“If I had to use one word to describe the hardest part of becoming a caregiver, it would be ‘loss,’” says Melissa Harris, PhD. Harris is a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University School of Nursing who researches mental health in caregivers of dementia patients. “Caregivers often aren’t prepared for the loss: loss of the person you once knew, the relationship you once had, or the expectation of what your future would be.” You may also lose friendships, free time, career opportunities, and other goals and freedoms. There can be financial losses, too. 

“Whether you’re disappointed, angry, in denial, or go through all the other stages of grief, take time to mourn,” Akgerman says. In other words, pay attention to your losses. That includes both the big ones and the small daily ones. “If you shove those feelings aside like papers to file later, eventually the whole pile will come crashing down.” 

Akgerman says mindfulness can help. (Mindfulness is the practice of being in the moment without judging or reacting to your emotions.) You may never stop grieving. Nor should you. “But at certain points, you have to pay attention to your thoughts and realize you can’t stay stuck wishing things were different or being angry,” Akgerman says. “You have to tell yourself, ‘This is what life dealt me. So where do I go from here?’”

Fight isolation

Feelings of isolation can happen easily during a caregiver’s journey. Connecting with others is an important way to counter it, Wharton says. Try to keep in touch with your friends, even if it’s not frequent. Meeting others who share a similar experience can also help ease some of the pressure, even if it’s just once a month. Peer support groups are a great way to make those connections. They can be online or in person. Some ways to find groups:

  • Search on Facebook. 
  • Ask your care recipient’s medical team.
  • Google “area agency on aging” or “caregiver support hotline.” Then call for a referral. 
  • Do you have a digital health management app such as Wellframe? If so, send a private message to your care advocate. They can connect you with a social worker who can make a referral.

“So many caregivers in our seminars expressed just how good it was to talk and connect with those who share the same experiences and feelings,” Akgerman says.

Harris has similar stories. As a nurse, it was hard for her to hear that healthcare providers weren’t always the best sources of support for caregivers. But there’s nothing like talking to a peer who knows exactly what you’re going through, Harris says. A network or support system offers an outlet and a place to get tips, share ideas, learn, vent, laugh, and cry.

The Wellframe digital health management app can connect you with all sorts of medical professionals in your network, including therapists and social workers. To find out if your health plan offers Wellframe, reach out to your insurance provider.

Put on your own oxygen mask first

When you feel stressed and overwhelmed, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. “The chemical cascade that follows helps keep us hyperaware and energized,” Wharton says. “That can be useful for managing crises and getting stuff done. But we are not made to function at that level for long periods of time. If you try, it can have serious health consequences. So you have to plan and find ways to cope. Caregiving is a marathon, not a sprint.”

To stay the course, you must slow down, take breaks, and get away, whether it’s to rest or to do something fun. This doesn’t have to be a long break. Even an hour to yourself can make a difference in fending off caregiver burnout. To do those things, you often have to ask for help. And while that can be difficult, it’s worth it.

“Many insurance companies cover respite care in the form of a paid caregiver. Or there are adult day programs that provide support and give you time and space too,” Harris says. Build a network of other caregivers so that it doesn’t all fall on you, Harris suggests. And do it before you truly need them, if possible. That way you’re prepared for life’s little surprises.

For example, talk to friends or other family members about when they can step in for you. “It might go against every instinct you have to get your nails done or go for a run for an hour,” Wharton says. “For me, it sometimes felt frivolous. But if I didn’t give my body and mind a chance to reset, I’d get so stressed that I couldn’t function at my best.” 

Plan to delegate 

You might be surprised at how willing people are to help if you ask. Likewise, if people offer to help you, don’t turn them down because you’re not sure what you should have them do. Instead, create a respite action plan.

“Start a list of things you go to if someone asks if they can help or that you can ask for when you need a break,” Akgerman says. “It doesn’t have to be direct care. Walking the dog, picking up groceries, folding laundry — anything that takes tasks off your plate frees you up mentally and physically.” 

Also, be sure to include tasks that can be done remotely. Distant relatives can take on things such as:

  • Finding home maintenance people.
  • Setting up appointments.
  • Ordering grocery delivery.
  • Researching recipes. 

Akgerman also suggests making a separate list of things you want or need to do for yourself. You might also create a list of places you want to visit when you get a break. Set up different columns depending on how much time you have. That way, if you find yourself with a spare 30 minutes or a whole afternoon free, you’re not spending that time thinking of a way to use it. 

Build empathy

As roles shift, it can cause a lot of tension or disappointment, Wharton says: for example, a child starts caring for a parent. Or a once-equal partnership between spouses becomes more one-sided. It’s okay to feel sad about things that you wanted to happen one day but now can’t. That’s grief, and it’s real. 

Resentment can also build. One thing that helps: Remind yourself how difficult the situation is for the care recipient too. “It doesn’t always make things easier. But trying to understand what it’s like to lose your independence can give you something to hold on to,” Wharton says.

Speaking of independence, try to give your care recipient the feeling of it as much as possible. This doesn’t mean leaving them unsupervised. Let them do what they can. And adapt the environment where you’re able. Things may take longer. You might have to set up new systems and routines. But it lets care recipients hold on to some dignity. And in the long run, it means less for you to do, Wharton says.

Harris suggests giving a name to the condition or behavior that has changed your relationship. “With dementia, for example, a person might say, ‘Oh, that’s Louie talking. That’s not you,’” Harris says. This disconnects the person from the condition so that you both can stay more connected. “It takes some pressure off the relationship and puts it on something else,” explains Harris.

Warning signs of caregiver burnout

Sometimes no matter what you do to avoid caregiver burnout, it creeps in. So be sure to watch for signs of trouble. “Feelings of hopelessness — like things are never going to get better, or if you start to push people away or feel like you never want to get out of the house — those are signs you need to step back and get space,” Harris says. In those times, call a caregiver support line. Or reach out to a therapist. Your Wellframe care advocate can help connect you with a therapist if you don’t already have one.  

At the same time, Harris says, one of the biggest things people don’t expect when they become caregivers is how rewarding the work can be. “You might find nothing positive about the situation at first. But people who have been caregivers for a while talk about how they’ve found meaning in the work they do. That keeps them going and provides hope.”

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