A caregiver helps another person with their medical and personal needs. Unlike a paid healthcare worker, a caretaker has a significant personal relationship with the person in need. Usually the person being cared for is a family member or friend who is chronically ill, has a disabling condition, or is an older adult who can’t care for themselves.
A caretaker helps with daily activities, such as:
- preparing meals
- running errands
- performing medical tasks, such as setting up tube feedings and giving medications
Being a caregiver for someone you know and love can be very rewarding, but it can also be exhausting and frustrating. It’s often emotionally, physically, and mentally draining. It tends to limit your social life and can cause financial problems.
Caretaker burnout occurs when the stress and burden from these negative effects become overwhelming, negatively affecting your life and health.
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP Public Policy Institute, in 2015, an estimated 43.5 million American adults were unpaid caregivers. About 85 percent were caregivers for someone related to them, and about half of these cared for a parent.
Caregiver burnout is very common. In the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP Public Policy Institute survey, 40 percent of caretakers felt emotionally stressed, almost 20 percent said it caused financial problems, and about 20 percent felt physically strained.
A caregiver with burnout has become overwhelmed and is physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted from the stress and burden of caring for their loved one. They may feel alone, unsupported, or unappreciated.
They often haven’t been taking good care of themselves and may be depressed. Eventually, they can lose interest in caring for themselves and the person they look after.
Almost every caretaker experiences burnout at some point. If it does happen and it’s not addressed, the caregiver eventually becomes unable to provide good care.
For this reason, caregiver burnout can be harmful to the person receiving care as well as the caregiver. A large study in the Journals of Gerontology even found that caregivers who felt they were under a lot of strain had a greater risk of dying than caretakers who felt little or no strain.
There are warning signs before burnout occurs. Being aware of and watching for them lets you know when you need to take steps to combat or prevent the stress you’re experiencing.
General warning signs and symptoms for caregiver burnout include:
- avoiding people
- feeling you’re losing control of your life
- lack of energy
- losing interest in the things you like to do
- neglecting your needs and health
When it happens, caregiver burnout has both physical and emotional signs and symptoms. Physical signs and symptoms include:
- body aches and pains
- frequent headaches
- increased or decreased appetite that may cause changes in weight
- weakened immune system leading to frequent infections
The emotional signs and symptoms are less easy to recognize, and you may not notice them. Some of these are:
- becoming angry and argumentative
- becoming irritated easily and often
- constant worry
- feeling hopeless
- inability to concentrate
- isolating yourself emotionally and physically
- lack of interest in things that used to make you happy
- lack of motivation
Developing negative behaviors, such as quickly losing your temper or neglecting your caretaker duties, is another sign of burnout.
As burnout progresses and depression and anxiety increase, a caretaker may use alcohol or drugs, especially stimulants, to try to relieve the symptoms. This can lead to impairment, which increases the risk of harm to the person receiving care. It can become a very dangerous situation, and a caretaker should stop providing care until they’re no longer under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Caretaker burnout can be diagnosed by your doctor or mental health provider. There are also self-assessment tests you can take to determine if you have burnout.
Your doctor or healthcare professional will make the diagnosis by talking with you about what you’ve been doing and how you’re feeling. They’ll want to know how well you’re taking care of yourself and if you’re taking enough breaks from the stress of caregiving.
They may give you questionnaires for depression or stress, but there are no blood or imaging tests that help make the diagnosis. You should tell your doctor that you’re caring for a loved one so they can watch for signs of burnout.
Burnout and depression are similar but separate conditions. They have many of the same symptoms, such as fatigue, anxiety, and sadness, but there are some differences too. These include:
- Cause. Depression is a disorder of your mood or state of mind. Burnout is a reaction to exposure to severe stress in your environment.
- How you feel. When you’re depressed, you may feel like life has lost its happiness. With burnout, you feel like all of your energy has been used up.
- Effect of removing stress. If getting away from caregiving and stress for a while doesn’t improve your symptoms, depression is more likely. If your symptoms improve with time away, you most likely have burnout.
- Treatment. Depression usually gets better with medication and sometimes psychotherapy. Burnout usually gets better by getting away from the stress of caretaking and focusing on your own health and needs.
While burnout occurs over time, as a caregiver feels overwhelmed by the stress of caring for a loved one, compassion fatigue happens suddenly. It’s the loss of the ability to empathize and have compassion for other people, including the person you’re caring for.
It’s caused by the extreme stress that comes with empathizing with the suffering and traumatic experiences of the people you care for. It’s mainly been studied in healthcare workers, but it also happens to caretakers.
Some of the warning signs are:
- anxiety and irrational fears
- difficulty making decisions
- increased use of drugs and alcohol
- lack of concentration
Once it’s identified and dealt with through self-reflection and lifestyle changes, compassion fatigue usually gets better quickly. If you think you have it, you should see your doctor or mental health provider as soon as possible.
It’s important to be aware of the warning signs of caretaker burnout to recognize when you have them. There are a number of things you can do to take care of yourself, stay healthy, and prevent burnout, including:
- Ask others for help. Remember that you don’t have to do everything. It’s OK to ask friends and family to do some of your caretaking tasks.
- Get support. Talking about what you’re going through and getting support from family and friends or a support group helps you process your feelings and emotions. Holding everything in can make you depressed and contribute to feeling overwhelmed. Consider seeking professional counseling, if necessary.
- Be honest with yourself. Know what you can and can’t do. Do the tasks that you can, and delegate the rest to others. Say no when you think a task will be too stressful or you don’t have time to do it.
- Talk to other caregivers. This helps you get support as well as allowing you to give support and encouragement to others going through something similar.
- Take regular breaks. Breaks help relieve some of your stress and restore your energy. Use the time to do the things that relax you and improve your mood. Even 10-minute breaks can help.
- Attend social activities. Meeting with friends, continuing your hobbies, and doing things you enjoy are important to maintain your happiness and avoid isolating yourself. The activity should be something that gets you away from the daily routine and setting of caregiving.
- Pay attention to your feelings and needs. It’s easy to forget to take care of your needs when you’re a caretaker. It’s important to focus on of yourself regularly and take care of your needs.
- Take care of your health. Keep your regular doctor appointments, including for preventive care, take your medications, and see your doctor when you feel sick. If you aren’t healthy, you can’t take care of someone else.
- Eat a healthy diet. Eating nutritious meals keeps you healthy and improves energy and stamina. Avoid junk food, which can make you feel sluggish.
- Exercise. Exercising is a great way to relieve stress, increase energy, and take time for yourself. It can also improve depression.
- Maintain your sleep schedule. Getting enough rest is important for your well-being and to maintain your stamina.
- Take family leave. If you work, make use of family leave benefits available to you. Removing the stress of work can reduce your responsibilities and free up more time for yourself.
- Consider respite care. When you need a break, using respite care for a few hours to a few weeks is an option in most places. When you need a few hours or a day for yourself, in-home services, such as a home health aide or an adult day center, can take care of your loved one. A residential care facility provides overnight care if you need a longer break. The drawback is that you pay a fee for these services that usually isn’t covered by Medicare or insurance.
Maintaining a healthy mind, body, and spirit is essential for the well-being of both you and your loved one. Having a caretaker toolkit can help keep you balanced and organized. It’s also a resource you can use if you experience burnout warning signs.
Many resources are available to help you care for your loved one. Most caretakers have no training on what to do for a specific condition, so finding helpful resources is important.
There are websites for most chronic conditions and services you might need. Some of these resources are listed below:
- Alzheimer’s Association
- American Cancer Society
- American Heart Association Resources for Caregivers
- American Lung Association
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
- The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services: Lists national and local resources for caregivers
- U.S. Dept. of Labor Disability Resources: Has resources on disability benefits
- Elder Law and Legal Planning: Provides resources to help with money and legal issues
- Caregiving Nearby and Long Distance: Provides resources for long-distance caregiving
- National Institute on Aging: Has information and resources on health and aging
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Lists information on mental health issues
- National Library of Medicine: Has a variety of medical databases and research information
- National Resource Directory: Provides information on caring for wounded warriors
- Social Security Administration: Find help for Medicare and social security issues
- Caregiver Action Network: Agencies and Organizations: Lists websites related to specific diseases
There are also many websites with resources to help caretakers take care of themselves:
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Caregiver Resources includes services provided at NIH clinics, and links to a variety of websites you can use to find information on most caregiver health and support topics. You can find government and local programs, services and resources for caregivers. It also has links to helpful blogs, workshops, podcasts, and videos. It even has a link to the National Library of Medicine Facebook page for caregivers.
- The Family Caregiver Alliance is a good overall resource that has a lot of information on both helping you provide care for your loved one and caring for yourself. It’s full of links to resources for most caregiver needs, questions, and concerns.
- The Family Caregiver Toolbox from the Caregiver Action Network provides a number of good tips and resources.
Caregiver burnout happens when the stress and burden of caring for a loved one becomes overwhelming. This causes a decline in your mental and physical health. Remember that burnout is a common occurrence in caretakers — you didn’t do anything to cause it.
The most important thing is to know the warning signs of caregiver burnout so you can recognize and even prevent them. Following the tips for preventing burnout and using the many resources available to caretakers will help you get to a healthier place.