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Taking Care of YOU: 5 Expert Tips for Avoiding Family Caregiver Burnout

November 04, 2021
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If you’re caring for a relative or friend who needs assistance due to a disease, disability or other condition, you’re in good company. According to the AARP, more than 1 in 5 adults — a total of 53 million adult Americans — are acting as unpaid caregivers. The number of caregivers climbed from 18 percent of adults in 2015 to more than 21 percent in 2020. Not surprisingly, the incidence of caregiver burnout is also on the rise.

According to Carrie Walker-Ray, a social worker with Baystate Home Health and Hospice, “Caregiver burnout is an all-too-common and natural feeling for anyone who has been thrust into the role of caregiving. The stress and anxiety that comes with caring for the physical and emotional needs of another can be literally exhausting. Often, caregivers put their own well-being on the back burner while tending to their loved one. In many cases, that tending isn’t just about picking up groceries or making a meal now and then. As people age or diseases progress, the demands on caregivers increase. Before you know it, it’s a 24/7 responsibility that may include bathing, medication management, dealing with insurance companies and so on. It’s serious and important work that requires time, attention, and focus. Pile that on top of the caregiver’s own personal responsibilities and needs and it’s no wonder that burnout takes place.”

Recognizing signs of burnout

While caregiving has its rewards, over time—especially over extended periods of time—it takes a toll.

“It’s hard enough simply watching someone you love decline in health,” says Walker-Ray, “but being engaged in that decline for years—or even decades—comes at a cost.”

The stress and burden of caregiving frequently leads to burnout: a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. “If left unchecked,” says Walker-Ray, “the well-being of both the caregiver and loved one suffers.”

Some of the signs of caregiver burnout include:

  • Fatigue
  • Increased stress and anxiety
  •  Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling constantly fatigued, even after sleeping
  • Depression
  • Feeling incompetent as a caregiver
  •  Loneliness and/or social isolation
  • Irritability
  • Feeling increasingly resentful
  • New or worsening health problems
  • A sense of hopelessness
  • Neglecting your own needs due to lack of time or concern for self
  • Feeling as if your life revolves around caregiving but offers little satisfaction

Tips for avoiding caregiver burnout

Walker-Ray says the most important bit of advice she can offer any caregiver at any point in their journey is to care for themselves by looking outside themselves for support.

“Many people assume an ‘it’s all up to me attitude’ about caregiving,” she says, “And while you may not have family members or others willing to step up and help, there are a lot of resources available that make is possible for caregivers to practice self-care. That might be just taking a few hours for a walk or to simply get out of the house or it might mean taking time to go the dentist or doctor. If you’re not emotionally or physically well, you can’t care for others so you must take time to care for yourself.”

Walker-Ray’s 5 top tips for avoiding burnout include:

1. Surround yourself with support

It helps to have a clear understanding of the support options available to you. Walker-Ray advises connecting with local agencies or social workers who can advise you of programs such as Meals on Wheels and respite care or even direct you to home health aides and Lifeline services that can make caring for a loved one at home easier.

2. Plan ahead

Walker-Ray urges every caregiver to take a long-range view to planning. She asks, “While you might have things under control today, what are you going to do tomorrow when your loved one can no longer be alone, or feed themselves, or whatever the next stage of decline might be? It’s important to know what Plan A, B, and C are, and have a handle on what resources you’ll need to execute each of those plans so that you’re not scrambling or questioning your choices when the time comes.”

She says, “It’s important to know what your options are for nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Understanding those options may require delving into your loved ones legal and financial issues and knowing who is—or establishing—a healthcare proxy.

“Visit your local senior center for information or contacting the local Area Agency on Aging (Greater Springfield Senior Services or WestMass ElderCare, depending upon the town you live in) are great places to start,” she advises. “They’re well-versed in helping people navigate the world of caregiving and transitions. Don’t be shy about asking for their guidance.”

3. Accept help when it’s offered

The world is full of well-meaning people who don’t know what to do. Create a list of things that others can do for you and your loved one. That might be dragging the garbage to the curb, picking up medication, running to the post office, or even driving your loved one to an appointment. Every task you can share is one less thing on your mental radar.

4. Take care of yourself

You need to be well physically, emotionally, and spiritually to have the inner strength and physical ability to provide care. Resist the urge to burn the midnight oil trying to do it all.

Instead, set a regular time to go to bed and to wake up. Eat a healthy diet and find time for yourself. Even just 10 scheduled minutes a day to breathe, meditate or do whatever it is that brings you peace, can dramatically improve your state of well-being.

“And, whatever you do,” says Walker-Ray, “don’t neglect your personal health. Lean on your support system so that you can go to the dentist, eye doctor, place of faith, or even the gym to ensure your most basic needs are taken care of.”

5. Join a caregiver support group

Available in-person and online, caregiver support groups are a great place to speak freely about the challenges you face with others who are going through similar experiences.

“You’ll feel better knowing that other people are in the same situation, and may find their experiences and knowledge invaluable—especially if they’re caring for someone with the same condition or illness as your loved one.”

Baystate is here to help

Baystate Home Health & Hospice Services provides high quality care specific to the needs of each patient’s needs. Our home health team works together to ensure a safe and swift recovery from illness, accident, or surgery in the comfort of home. The Hospice team, comprised of experienced nurses, therapists, social workers, hospice aides, spiritual and bereavement counselors, and volunteers, works with patients and families to bring understanding, comfort, dignity and a sense of peace as each patient journeys towards the final stage of life.

Learn more about Baystate Home Health & Hospice.

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