While caring for an aging loved one is both respectable and rewarding, the perils of caregiver burnout are a harsh reality that can have devastating consequences. Erin Relyea, a registered social worker at Family Service Toronto, works with seniors and caregivers and currently serves as the Project Coordinator for the Caring for Caregivers Project.
“Caregiver burnout happens when caregivers take on too much, and become overwhelmed by the tasks of caregiving in addition to their daily tasks,” she says.
Ultimately, burnout is a result of an inability to cope.
Below are five common signs of caregiver stress that can lead to burnout, as well as potential coping mechanisms. If you identify with any or all of the below, it may be time to take a step back for yourself and seek additional help. Of course, if you feel you are suffering from any or all of these symptoms, it’s best to consult a trusted medical professional and your loved ones for coping strategies best suited to you.
Whether or not you’re sleeping well is often a telltale sign of burgeoning stress that can often lead to burnout. On average, adults need between six and eight hours of sleep every night.
If you fall outside of this average, the symptoms of exhaustion are further reaching than simply feeling or appearing more tired than usual. They can manifest themselves as looking fatigued, especially around the eye area. You may also experience chronic insomnia, forgetfulness and/or impaired concentration, an increase in your susceptibility to illness, loss of appetite, anxiety, depression and even anger. Exhaustion can also lead to physical symptoms, such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness and fainting, and headaches.
“Tiring more easily, or having trouble getting out of bed are two signs of caregiver burnout,” says Relyea.
Ensure you visit your doctor or consult a trusted medical professional before jumping to any conclusions, but be aware that a continuous lack of quality sleep will take its toll on your body.
Stress can cause many to lash out in different ways, but experiencing a lack of patience and an increase in irritability is often very common. Do you find yourself with less patience when caring for and helping your loved one? Are there actions or patterns of behaviour that trigger a negative emotional response in you? If so, remember that feeling angry and irritable are both natural outpourings of stress that affect many caregivers.
“There’s definitely a huge link between stress and irritability,” says Relyea.
“When someone is stressed there is more cortisol running through their body, increasing their heart rate and blood pressure. In this situation, we respond through an emotional lens to situations, which can often look like irritability or anger.”
To supplement your understanding of the intersection of stress and irritability, ask yourself:
- Do you feel like you don’t have enough time for yourself as a result of the time you spend caring for your loved one?
- Do you feel stressed between caring for your loved one and trying to juggle other responsibilities, such as work, family and other hobbies?
- Do you find yourself feeling strained when you’re around your loved one for whom you care?
- Do you feel uncertain about what to do with your loved one, and the situation at hand?
If you’ve answered “yes” to most or all of the above questions, it may be time to consult a trusted medical professional and your loved ones for suitable stress-coping strategies.
Depression & Concentration
While depression manifests itself differently within different people, you may find yourself with less of a proverbial “pep” in your step and general lack of enthusiasm for life and work. While these two signs are not necessarily an indication of depression, they may be linked to a number of other symptoms that work in conjunction towards caregiver burnout.
Common signs of depression can include, but are not limited to:
- A change in eating habits resulting in unwanted weight gain or loss.
- A change in sleep patterns, yielding either too much or too little sleep.
- Feeling constantly tired or fatigued.
- A loss of interest in people or activities that once brought you joy and excitement.
- Becoming easily agitated or angry.
- Feeling that nothing you do is good enough.
- Thoughts of death or suicide.
Ongoing physical symptoms that don’t respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders and other chronic pain.
Depression may also lead to a lack of concentration or attention to detail, which can present a great risk to your loved one for whom you’re caring. This is especially prevalent if they’re on a strict medication or meal schedule. Ensure to consult your doctor for a trusted medical diagnosis if you feel you’re experiencing most or all of these symptoms.
Alcohol & Substance Use
Alcohol, drugs and sedatives are all dangerous paths to follow, but are unfortunately a respite for many on the verge of burnout. While you may not be conscious of your substance intake, have you noticed yourself exhibiting (or been told you’re exhibiting) erratic behaviour, which may be caused by substance use?
“I imagine [substance abuse] can sometimes be a coping mechanism for some when they’re feeling overwhelmed and unable to manage their emotions…the effect of which extends to their own health, ability to cope and provide care,” says Relyea.
There’s no shame in the realization that you may be experiencing behavioural changes resultant of substance use, because this realization is often the motivation needed to seek the help of a medical professional or loved one for help. After all, the use of these substances not only threatens your own well-being, but also that of your loved one for whom you’re caring.
Lack of Interest
Do you find yourself feeling blasé? Listless in what you’re doing, and sloppy with your actions? You may not even be aware of your actions (or lack thereof) until they’re pointed out. Unfortunately, this pattern of behaviour runs the risk of making your loved one feel you simply don’t care anymore about their well-being, which can take an emotional toll on them.
Relyea explains that feeling ambivalent is fairly common amongst caregivers, because it’s sometimes a role that they don’t necessarily choose. Running through the same routine may be uninteresting to some people, and prevent them from pursuing their own hobbies and passion projects.
“There is a lack of interest, of feeling ambivalent, because it’s not necessarily something they want to be doing,” she says.
Feeling ambivalent can feel like simultaneously wanting to be doing what you’re doing (in this case, caring for your loved one) and the feeling of not wanting to be doing it. While this pattern of behaviour may not be present every day, on bad days it may make you feel like you don’t want to be where you are and doing the tasks you need to complete.
Managing Your Stress
If you find yourself experiencing two or more of the above signs of caregiver stress and burnout, it may be time to take a step back for yourself to try and manage your feelings in order to improve both your own quality of life and that of your loved one.
There are a number of strategies you may consider implementing, including but not limited to:
- Talking to a loved one or confidant: this can be a great stress reliever, as a trusted source will often remind you of your successes and offer a space to vent.
- Committing to self-care: with the rise in popularity of self-care, there is no shortage of activities that you can do for yourself. Schedule a physical with your doctor to get back on track with your health, plan healthy meals, make time for exercise, keep a journal, run a bubble bath—the possibilities are endless.
- Meditating: while meditation may not be for everyone, the simple act of learning to focus your mind and breathe deeply has seen much success in stress management.
- Joining a support group: in addition to sharing strategies and tips for easing your caregiver struggles, a support group can also help you manage any emotional issues you may be experiencing.
The most important point, says Relyea, is to “make sure you don’t get lost in the caregiving; don’t let it consume your identity.”
Relyea also recommends practicing mindfulness in all of your tasks—being present in each moment, and focusing on one task at a time. She also recommends progressive muscle relaxation and encourages an understanding that you cannot do everything on your own.
As a caregiver, your own needs may not feel like a priority, which can make implementing any of the above strategies difficult, as they may require you to take time off from caring for your loved one. If this is the case, you may consider professional care for your loved one, which can include a short-term stay at an active seniors’ home, or enlisting the help of a home care agency. There may also come a time when you must make the decision to transition your loved one from your own care to that of an active retirement residence that has the capacity to care for them long-term.
Caregiver burnout can be insidious, so even if you feel you aren’t currently and explicitly experiencing any of these symptoms, ensure to keep tabs on your physical and emotional health.
If you find yourself at the point where you feel you may need to (or soon need to) transition your loved one’s care, get in touch with Seasons to find out more about their long-term residency offerings.
Photo is from iStock
Guest Author Bio
Alexandra Chronopoulos is a graduate of Ryerson’s School of Journalism and currently works as 9thCO’s in-house content writer. When she’s not working, she enjoys eating spaghetti bolognese, reading anything by John le Carré and watching Friends reruns. Although, not necessarily in that order.