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Caregiver Burnout: Steps for Coping With Stress

Recognize the signs and get the help you need to reduce the toll on your body and mind

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En español | Taking care of a loved one who has dementia, physical disabilities or other age-related conditions makes demands on your time, energy and emotions — demands that, as the Cleveland Clinic warns, “can easily seem overwhelming.”

Caregiving can tax your patience and foster fatigue, frustration and guilt, becoming a grueling grind that takes a heavy toll on the caregiver's body and mind. The physical effects are well documented.

Causes of caregiver burnout

Along with the heavy workload and emotional demands of family caregiving, these issues also can contribute to burnout.

• Conflicting demands as you try to balance the needs of the care recipient, coworkers and employers, family members, and yourself.

• Lack of control over money and resources and a lack of the skills needed to effectively manage a loved one's care.

• Lack of privacy because caregiving may leave you with little time to be alone.

• Role confusion, difficulty separating your roles as caregiver and as the parent, sibling or spouse of the care recipient.

• Unreasonable demands placed upon a caregiver by other family members or the person being cared for.

• Unrealistic expectations about the effect caregiving efforts will have on loved ones with progressive diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.

Sources: Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins Medicine

Researchers have found that among people ages 55 to 75, those who are caregivers experience a 23 percent higher level of stress hormones, according to the American Psychological Association. That can lead to high blood pressure and elevated glucose levels, contributing factors to hypertension and diabetes.

Caregivers also show a 15 percent lower level of immune response than noncaregivers, making them more vulnerable to the flu and other infections.

The effects on mental health can be damaging, too. In a 2015 survey from the AARP Public Policy Institute and the National Alliance for Caregiving, nearly 4 in 10 caregivers reported that they suffered from a high level of stress.

2018 study from insurance firm Genworth found that 41 percent of caregivers experienced depression, mood swings and resentment as a result of their labors.

Over time, that physical and psychological wear and tear can lead to caregiver burnout — a condition of feeling exhausted, listless and unable to cope. It can cause caregivers to make mistakes that could endanger a loved one, such as mismanaging medication, or lead to unhealthy behaviors like smoking or alcohol abuse.

That's watching for the signs of caregiver burnout and taking proactive steps to deal with it before it spirals out of control is important.

Warning signs of caregiver burnout

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The Alzheimer's Association cites these 10 indicators that a caregiver may be experiencing a high level of stress:

• Anger or frustration toward the person you're caring for

• Anxiety

Denial about your loved one's condition

• Depression

• Exhaustion that makes it tough to complete your daily tasks

• Health problems, such as getting sick more often

• Inability to concentrate that makes it difficult to perform familiar tasks or causes you to forget appointments

• Irritability and moodiness

• Sleeplessness

• Social withdrawal from friends and activities that you used to enjoy

Another tool to evaluate whether tending to a loved one is taking a toll is an 18-question caregiver self-assessment called “How Are You?" that the American Medical Association developed and the American Psychological Association recommends.

Tips to reduce caregiver stress

Give yourself a break. Ask a friend or relative to fill in for you for a few hours occasionally so you can take a walk, watch a movie or go out to dinner.

If you don't have that sort of informal support available or feel you need more structured respite care, look into other options through the Access to Respite Care and Help (ARCH) National Respite Network and Resource Center's National Respite Locator, which can help you find adult day care centers and home care services in your area.

Simplify your communication. Keeping extended family and friends up to date about your loved one's situation through phone calls or individual emails can be tiring, and you may not want to broadcast that information on social media.

Try using a website like CaringBridge, PostHope or MyLife Line that allows you to post updates for everyone simultaneously with controls to protect your loved one's privacy.

Tap into online resources. The U.S. government's Eldercare Locator can connect you with your local Area Agency on Aging, which can guide you to resources in your community to help you deal with the challenges you are facing.

You also can call the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116.

With the Community Resource Finder, an online database from AARP and the Alzheimer's Association, you can find a range of programs and services in your area, from elder law attorneys to transportation. The Family Caregiver Alliance's Family Care Navigator can help you locate local resources, too.

Join a support group. If you feel like you're alone in your struggle, talking with other family caregivers can lift your spirits and help you think through solutions to various problems.

You may be able to find a support group through a local church or hospital, or at the website of the Well Spouse Association, which coordinates a national network of groups for spousal caregivers.

If you're taking care of a loved one with Alzheimer's disease, the Alzheimer's Association offers a locator for support groups in your area. AARP has an online caregiving forum and a Facebook discussion group where caregivers can share information and advice, and the Family Caregiver Alliance operates an online support group that communicates via email.

Nurture positive relationships. You may be overwhelmed, but take the time to talk with your closest friends and family members.

Spend an evening with someone who is a good listener. Limit your interactions with negative people who will drag down your mood and perspective.

Take care of your own health. Set a goal to establish a good sleep routine and to exercise a certain number of hours every week.

Be sure to eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. See your doctor for recommended immunizations and screenings.

Tell your physician that you're a caregiver and bring up any concerns you may have. A daily relaxation and meditation practice can be beneficial as well.

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