Thirty-nine percent of all adults in the United States give unpaid caregiving to a friend or relative, and this number will only grow as Baby Boomers age. Caregiving is no easy task, especially when you have to balance the responsibility with full-time work. Many caretakers also report they experience a decline in both their physical and mental health when their focus is on the health of a loved one. Of course there are positives to caregiving as well. Family members recognize that it is valuable to spend time and create memories with their loved ones, and children in particular are able to return the love and care they were given by their own parents.
The best caregivers are focused on both the health of their loved one as well as themselves. This is because mental health and medical professionals acknowledge that a person can only take care of their loved one to the best degree if they make a conscious effort to be healthy and battle the emotional and physical symptoms of stress. Some symptoms of caretaker stress might include:
- Lack of energy
- Sleep changes
- Eating changes
- Loss of interest in activities
- Depressed mood
If a caregiver transitions from a positive and energetic attitude to feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, then they may suffer from what is known as caregiver burnout. People who do more than they are physically, emotionally, and financially able to do as a caretaker are particularly susceptible to this type of burnout. This can result in their own declining physical health. Caregivers may also begin to withdraw from others who can support them, and they may abuse substances such as alcohol or caffeine.
What Can You Do Today?
Let’s take a look at some simple changes you can make today to avoid caregiver burnout.
Access resources. In addition to family members, consider what community and national resources are available to you. Your church, temple, or other place of worship can provide support. There might be caregiver support groups online or at local community organizations such as a hospital. There are counselors and social workers who specialize in caretaking issues, and there are national caregiver organizations, some specific to a particular illness or disability, that provide invaluable resources to caregivers.
Let family members choose. Research has shown that people are more likely to follow through with responsibilities when they choose them, so ask family members or friends where they feel most prepared to help. Allowing them to use their skills and talents benefits the loved one who needs care, gives you space to breathe and rest, and allows other family members to feel valued. Even just an hour of sitting with your loved one or a trip to the grocery store can make a huge difference for everyone.
Don’t guilt yourself. Caretakers are often plagued with guilt over not doing “enough” for their loved one. But there are always financial, physical, and emotional limitations depending on your situation. Guilt is usually not a healthy or productive emotion, so choose to focus instead on what you have done. When you ask for help and are intentional about taking care of yourself, you also set yourself up to approach problems creatively and with a positive attitude.
Don’t isolate. When you feel exhausted from the tasks of caregiving, it can feel very tempting to spend all your free time alone. But rather than hiding at home in front of the television, reach out to others. Maintaining a strong social network keeps you emotionally and mentally healthy, so spend time with friends, other family members, and community groups that bring you joy. Never assume that people don’t want to hear about your life and challenges just because they don’t ask.
Be healthy. Sure, it’s easier said than done, but getting a good night’s rest, eating healthy, and exercising regularly are your best defenses against caregiver stress symptoms. You should never apologize for taking care of yourself, and by prioritizing your health, both you and your loved one will benefit. For extra help, let your doctor know about your caretaker responsibilities, so he or she can help you monitor the signs and symptoms of burnout. If you’re likely to neglect taking care of yourself, recruit a friend with similar health goals so you can hold each other accountable.
If you’re not sure where to start, every day you can ask yourself two questions. First, “What is the most important thing I can do for my loved one today?” Next, “What is the most important thing I can do for myself today?” The answers to these two questions don’t have to be contradictory. When you take care of yourself, you honor your loved one with caregiver who is healthy, happy, and fully present.