Caregiver burnout, don't let it happen to you.

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

Preventing senior caregiver burnout: What to watch for and how to cope

When you’re caring for a loved one who has dementia. People will often say things like “You’re so brave” or “I couldn’t do what you do.” But most of the time, you don’t feel especially brave or heroic. Although care-giving for a senior can be incredibly rewarding, a lot of the time you might feel overwhelmed or exhausted. That’s when you’re at risk for caregiver burnout.

Almost 60 percent of caregivers report feeling highly stressed in their role, according to the 2020 AARP report "Care-giving in the U.S." To avoid this situation, caregivers must use coping strategies to put themselves first and take time for themselves. This will help not only with their well-being, but it will also make them better caregivers.

Identifying caregiver burnout

The Cleveland Clinic defines caregiver burnout 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.”

Signs of caregiver burnout

“There’s no blood test for burnout,” says Cynthia Epstein, LCSW, who is the clinical mentor for the NYU Langone Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Dementia's Family Support Program. “It’s a chameleon — it shows up as depression, or apathy, or acting out, or being irritable, or abusing alcohol, or any number of symptoms. So we treat the symptoms: A doctor might put the caregiver on antidepressants, because they seem depressed."

But there are definitive signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout. The Mayo Clinic provides a comprehensive list. Possible red flags include:

Your sleep is suffering. Are you waking up in the middle of the night? Taking forever to fall asleep? This is a common sign of stress overload. You’re unusually irritable, angry, or sad. Meltdowns, are you suddenly snapping at loved ones, which isn’t in your nature? Losing your patience with slow salesclerks? When you’re already stretched to the breaking point,and it becomes harder to manage your emotions. Mood swings and irritability can also be signs of depression. (Other symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness or hopelessness, changes in appetite, lack of energy, and loss of interest in things that used to bring you pleasure.) You’re drinking or smoking more. Do you feel like you need two or three glasses of wine at the end of the day, every day, to unwind? You have no time for personal care. You might look in the mirror and think, “When was the last time I brushed my hair?” Or you’ve totally abandoned even attempting an exercise routine. You’re constantly sick. Stress can affect your immune system. In fact, research has shown that caregivers have lowered immune response. They’re also more prone to ailments like acid re-flux, headaches, and aches and pains. Caregivers often feel hopelessness and exhaustion.

“Dr. Barry J. Jacobs, author of ‘The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers: Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping an Aging Parent,’ describes the typical signs of burnout as fatigue, irritability, sleeplessness, feelings of helplessness, and withdrawal from activities and social contacts. Jacobs warns that isolated caregivers are particularly vulnerable to burnout and more at risk for depression. They cut themselves off from friends, family, and other supports because they don’t have time for that stuff. They keep going until they can’t anymore. And then what? They land in the emergency room with a herniated disc — or worse. Healthcare professionals try their best to intervene, but that may be after the damage is done.”

Care-giving coping strategies

Everyone will tell you: “Take care of yourself!” “Get help!” Your first instinct might be to think of all the reasons you can’t. “And many of those reasons are valid,” You may not be able to get particular family members to help. But the one thing you’ve got to do is understand you have a life that is valuable, apart from your role as a caregiver.”

Many caregivers, when you ask how they are, will answer with how their loved one is. That’s the key: You can’t lose your own identity in the process of caring for another.

You don’t have to make one big change that fixes everything. As you know, that’s not even possible. But you can make small changes, one at a time, that will Lego-build themselves into bigger and bigger changes to give yourself some breathing room.

Name the problem. Name and accept this thing for what it is your experiencing burnout.’ You can only contend with this so long.” Take five. Carve out and schedule in some time of your day to look out a window, water a plant, breathe. Take advantage of a senior social activity day program to have time to meditation and walk outside,

Keep moving your body, it lowers your blood pressure and helps regulates your blood sugar and improves your brain function, Also,releases endorphins, and lowers your cholesterol , so keep moving and stay active. Be creative. Literally. Get out when you can. Find respite care in a social senior activity day program for your loved one so you can have time for yourself to rejuvenate. Replenish yourself and ask for help, you need and deserve the help and assistance. Be kind to yourself, so you can be the best caregiver possible for your loved one. Loved one with dementia especially, being with other like-peer's enjoy companionship, music and activities can be soothing and even help unlock memories. Ask for help, paying for a day program is priceless for your health and well being. You will be amazed with the transformation in your life and revitalized joy.

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