Caregiving can be rewarding. It feels good to be able to care for a loved one. Spending that time together can give new meaning to your relationship. However, it is also physically and emotionally demanding. Many caregivers are providing help or are “on call” practically 24 hours a day. This leaves little time to spend with spouses, children, and friends, or at work. Those who work full or part time may fear that the many days and hours they must take off will put their jobs at risk. Women caregivers often are overwhelmed by so many competing demands for their time.

Money is often a problem as well. The drugs, doctors’ visits, or in-home medical equipment can be very costly. Sometimes the caregiver is forced to delay saving for retirement or to take out loans or mortgages to provide financial help.

Caregiving also can take a toll on the caregiver’s health. They often are so busy taking care of a loved one that they often neglect their own health. Research has shown that women caregivers:

  • Get colds and flu more easily
  • Are more likely to have depression or anxiety
  • Are at higher risk for heart disease

Burnout warning signs

Not taking care of your physical and emotional health will have an effect on your overall health and your ability to care for your loved one. Neglecting your own health also may put your loved one at risk. You may make mistakes when giving medication or forget to make an important doctor’s appointment. You may explode verbally, or even neglect or mistreat the person for whom you are caring. Ultimately, you may completely burn out physically or emotionally. This would leave you unable to give care at all.

For your sake and your loved one’s, don’t ignore these possible burnout signs:

  • Feeling sad, unusually anxious, or moody
  • Crying more often than usual
  • Having trouble sleeping or getting out of bed
  • Having low energy or lacking interest in things you usually enjoy
  • Feeling short of breath or like you have a knot in your throat
  • Getting frequent stomach cramps or headaches
  • Having chest pains
  • Drinking too much alcohol (more than one drink a day)
  • Eating too much or too little

Pay attention to these symptoms and get the help you need. Talk to your doctor about your physical and emotional symptoms. Make sure he or she knows you are a caregiver. Seeing a counselor may help if you are depressed or anxious. And don’t ignore emergency symptoms such as severe chest pains, shortness of breath, nausea, sweating, or pain in the jaw. You may be having a heart attack — call 911 immediately. If you feel like hurting yourself or are afraid you will hurt yourself, talk to a family member, friend, clergy member, or your doctor.

Taking care of yourself

The good news is that you can take steps to prevent burnout. Try some of the suggestions from this list. You may not be able to do all of them — or do them all of the time. But making the effort will pay off.

  • Find community caregiving resources for your loved one. Whether you are seeking respite care, adult day care, or nutrition programs, tapping into local resources can relieve you of some caregiving burdens.
  • Ask for and accept help. You can’t do it all yourself. You just can’t. Ask your spouse to help out. If your spouse is the one you’re caring for, ask adult children, other family members, or even friends.
  • Stay in touch with friends and family. Social activities can help you feel connected and may reduce stress. Your friends and family may also notice burnout signs that you aren’t aware of.
  • Find time to be physically active each week. With your jammed schedule, this may seem impossible, but it’s important. Keep in mind that you don’t need a solid block of time. Doing 10 minutes of physical activity throughout the day can add up and have health benefits. Depending on your loved one’s abilities, you might try to do physical activity together. Going for a walk, dancing, or other physical movement will also help the older adult you care for.
  • Establish a regular routine. Find a system and schedule that works for you and stick to it as often as possible. Make a list if you need to. Knowing that a tidal wave of tasks isn’t going to crash down on you can be a huge relief. It can also give you a better sense of control.
  • Look to faith-based groups for support and help. Participating in a religious community, if you choose, can be comforting. Most faith-based groups also have programs with people ready and willing to help.
  • Join a support group for caregivers in your situation (like caring for a person with dementia). Sometimes you just need to talk to people who’ve been there. You can share ideas and resources for coping.
  • If you can afford to, get help. It doesn’t even have to be a home health aid. Whether it’s a cleaning service, grocery delivery, or someone to walk your dog, it’s one less thing you have to do. Depending on your situation and where you live, you may be entitled to some free or low-cost services, such as transportation help and respite care. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging to see what is available to you.
  • Take time for you. Make sure you do something for yourself every day. You could take a brief walk or a calming bath. Catch up with a friend over coffee. Take a power nap. Or just some take time to sit, listen to music, read, meditate, or just think. Try to find the time to pursue hobbies you enjoy.
  • Try to get enough sleep and rest. Studies have shown that not getting enough sleep increases the level of stress hormones in your body. This can sap your mood, energy, and health. The reality, however, is that many caregivers have problems sleeping due to stress or because they are needed to provide care during the night. Talk to your doctor if sleep problems are keeping you from feeling well-rested. If your sleep often is interrupted to provide care, look into overnight caregiving services so that you can get a full night’s sleep a few times a week. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging to see what is available to you.
  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals that are rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. You’ve heard it before, but if you eat better, you really will feel and function better.
  • Take one day at a time. Stop asking yourself “what if.” Don’t obsess about all you have on your plate. It doesn’t solve anything and it can be overwhelming.

From the Dept. of Health and Human Services: