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How Exhausted Caregivers Can Regain Their Momentum

Prioritize connecting with a loved one over checking off items on the to-do list

spinner image caregiver and senior woman talking over coffee
Fred Froese / Getty Images

“I feel exhausted. Totally drained,” said Scott, the 53-year-old son of a mother suffering from chronic back pain and frequent falls, during a recent therapy session. His voice was low and his face downcast. For four years, he’d been going to his mother’s house to help her several days a week. Recently, he’d regularly visited her in the hospital after she’d been admitted for a severe kidney infection. He felt spent.

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Scott’s fatigue wasn’t physical. When he wasn’t on caregiving duty, he had the energy to play softball for his company team and go dancing with his wife. But each time he arrived at his mother’s house and she handed him her latest to-do list, his spirits sagged. He loved his mother and was as committed to helping her as much as ever. But he was beginning to think of the warmhearted woman who’d raised him as a never-ending source of chores.

This is among the most unfortunate effects of long-term caregiving on family caregivers. Most of them start their caregiving journeys with noble intentions, high enthusiasm and robust vigor. But the months and years of caregiving routine wear them down psychologically so that their once gung-ho approach to caregiving becomes ho hum — resigned and dispirited. They wind up mechanically and listlessly going through the daily motions of doing what needs to be done. In the process, they lose touch with the essence of caregiving — helping someone they love because, well, they love that person.

Scott didn’t want to regard his mother largely as a relentless taskmaster. When he treated her that way, sighing slightly or staring blankly as he scanned her latest to-do list, she felt hurt, and then he felt guilty. So how can he and other emotionally depleted caregivers replenish themselves and rekindle their enthusiasm for caregiving? Here are some ideas.

Prioritize connection over task completion

It’s true that family caregivers usually have so many caregiving tasks — from paying bills to picking up meds to hands-on dressing and grooming — that they can’t wait to get through them each day. But being “do-ers” all the time can have a strangely paradoxical effect: Rather than putting the person they’re caring for at the center of their attention, checking tasks off a list can itself become an all-consuming preoccupation. Caregivers become masterful at managing chores but less emotionally engaged with the person they’re sacrificing their time and energy to help.

As gratifying as crossing chores off a list can be, psychologists believe connecting with others on an emotional level is ultimately more fulfilling. Imagine skipping the tasks one day — or at least limiting the day’s work to only the most crucial ones — and instead spending a morning working on a family tree or oral family history together. Or consider having a heart-to-heart talk about present circumstances, however challenging, including a loved one’s peeves, worries and hopes. In the long run, it won’t be completing tasks that caregivers remember when they one day look back at caregiving. It will be those moments of conversation and connection, when they felt touched and renewed.       

Take time to feel your own sadness

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Sometimes caregivers throw themselves into completing caregiving tasks for their own emotional reasons: By mechanically doing things all the time, they are less likely to feel their emotional reactions to what is going on. And what is the most common reaction? Oftentimes, it is the deep sadness that comes from witnessing a loved one’s decline. Connecting to and tolerating one’s own grief may be a prerequisite for stepping back from doing tasks and creating emotionally fulfilling moments with care receivers whose time is short.

Ask for help in return

One of the main reasons caregiving is so depleting is that caregivers give and give but either can’t or won’t take from the care receiver. What might have been more of a two-way relationship in the past — say, a mother and son taking care of each other in different ways — becomes lopsidedly tilted. Whenever possible (and, admittedly, it isn’t always), caregivers should ask care receivers to give back to them.  

For instance, when his mother hands him her to-do list, Scott can give her his. His list might consist of such items as “Please call the pharmacy to make sure your medications are ready before I drive there to pick them up” and “Can I run a work problem by you for your advice?” He’ll be less apt to feel used up by his mother over time if he receives even small gestures of help — and love — from her in return.

Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for CaregiversFollow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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