Most of us have heard of caregiver burnout or are familiar with the trials and tribulations involved with providing care for a loved one. While we may be aware of these unique “occupational hazards,” many family caregivers feel that they are powerless to change their situation and turn a blind eye to their emotional, physical and even financial difficulties. However, this denial only provides a cozy little space for burnout to take root and grow.
According to AARP’s 2015 Caregiving in the U.S. Report, 38 percent of caregivers consider their situation to be highly stressful. Furthermore, nearly half of this high-stress group provides more than 20 hours of care each week. Even if you believe you are on top of your loved one’s care and meeting your own emotional and physical needs, it is crucial for you to periodically take an objective look at your situation in order to prevent pushing your limits too far. You may be meeting many of these needs, but are you providing the best possible care? At what costs?
“Some people do not realize the extent of their stress and burnout, so they do not realize that they need to take action or look into things that can help them,” says Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist in the state of Pennsylvania. “This puts those caregivers at greater risk for fatigue and depression and, ultimately, for being unable to continue their caregiving duties.”
Dr. Jacobs is the author of “The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers: Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping an Aging Parent.” He also coauthored “Meditations for Caregivers: Practical, Emotional and Spiritual Support for You and Your Family” with his wife, Julia L. Mayer, Psy.D.
I asked Dr. Jacobs to provide us with recommendations that may help family caregivers better gauge the amount of strain they’re experiencing and become more proactive in helping themselves.
Dr. Jacobs, what are the consequences of blindly accepting a caregiving situation or ignoring the signs of burden and burnout?
It is a well-worn cliché at this point, but I find that the marathon metaphor is still the most powerful way of helping caregivers realize they need to prepare themselves for the long haul. That means that caregivers, like marathon runners, must learn the lay of the land, find a sustainable pace, and accept replenishment along their journey if they have any hope of gamely persevering from start to finish line. With this metaphor in mind, we can say that the caregiver who goes into this blindly is akin to the misguided runner in crocs and jeans with no clue about how far they have to travel. They simply are not equipped to successfully complete the race and are likely to stumble and fall within the first mile.
Much the same can be said for caregivers who wantonly ignore signs of burden and burnout. Even as they eye the next uphill stretch ahead of them, marathoners have to constantly scan their bodies for muscle cramps and strained ligaments that could be their undoing. This awareness of their limits is crucial. When pain becomes too sharp, they know they have to throttle back on their pace. Caregivers, too, need to be on alert for physical symptoms such as neck and back pain, headaches, and emotional symptoms such as persistent irritability and hopelessness, either of which could undermine their capacity to give care. When they don’t watch for these signs and try to push through, they make themselves more, not less, likely to badly falter over the long, grinding course.
How can caregivers tell when they are overly stressed?
To me, the telltale sign is a demoralizing sense of dread. It is going to bed each night in anguish over the next day’s chores and waking up each morning with a feeling of heaviness and a reluctance to get going. Caregivers who are full of dread have come to hate their daily caregiving routines, even if they still love the person for whom they’re caring. Ironically, many of them rigidly resist all suggestions for altering those routines as if any change would be tantamount to giving up altogether. These caregivers will struggle unhappily month after month until the day that they simply can’t physically or emotionally force themselves out of bed any more.
Another sign is constant yelling. I’m not talking about the caregiver who becomes frustrated on occasion and sharply rebukes their care recipient. As I point out to many of the guilt-ridden individuals who come to me for counseling, people occasionally yell in families in which no caregiving is taking place. That is simply called normal family life. What I’m concerned about here is the caregiver who frequently loses control of their emotions and winds up saying and doing hurtful things much too often. These are caregivers who need to immediately change their care plan to reduce their burden or even cease caregiving altogether. They need to find alternative means for ensuring that their loved one is well cared for.