A young woman feels the forehead of her older loved one as he lays in bed.

Caring for another person can be rewarding, but it also has its challenges. Caregiver burnout describes the state of mind when caring for another person takes a toll on you emotionally, physically, and psychologically. If you’re caring for a loved one and wonder what caregiver burnout is, here we describe its causes and symptoms and provide steps to prevent caregiver burnout.

Causes of caregiver burnout

A caregiver’s main focus is often on the well-being of the person they’re caring for, so caregivers often put their mental, physical, and emotional well-being last. Specifically, these aspects of being a caregiver can contribute to burnout:

  • Confusion about the role: Many individuals become confused when put into the caretaker’s role. For example, caring for your older parent may be confusing when you feel like the roles have reversed. In this scenario, you have to think more about the safety and daily routine of your parent, when historically that may not have been the case — as a child, they cared for you. If you’re caring for a spouse, carrying out daily personal tasks may have been more of an equal responsibility for each person. So if you need to think about helping a spouse shower or eat, this mindset shift can shock your psychological routine. 
  • Having unrealistic goals: To a certain extent, many caregivers hope their efforts will improve the patient’s well-being and quality of life. This may not be realistic for people with diseases that worsen over time, like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Even if the person you’re caring for does not have a degenerative disease, you may set unrealistic goals — you want to help the person you love, while their aging process could make it difficult for you to reach certain expectations for the future.
  • Loss of control: Caring for an aging loved one comes with surprises, like changes in their physical health that require more attention, fluctuations in a person’s thoughts about their aging, and added tasks to your daily life. The inability to plan and manage your life like you used to can make many caregivers feel helpless and frustrated. Further, many caregivers are dealing with these circumstances for the first time, so not having little experience with certain situations and not knowing what comes next can make a person feel like they no longer have control over their lives.
  • Inability to recognize burnout: Many caregivers do not realize when they are experiencing burnout and eventually become unable to perform adequately. They could even become sick themselves.
  • Too much workload: Some caregivers may care for someone with many needs. In these situations, a person must have momentary relief and support from other caregivers.
  • Change in routine: As medical knowledge improves, current treatment methods may evolve to better serve patients. While these changes are made with the best intentions, they can nevertheless create a great deal of stress and disruption for a caregiver who has developed a comfortable routine.
  • Lack of autonomy: Sometimes, caregivers may feel unable to make independent decisions. They may feel a lack of self-determination and a sense of powerlessness.

Signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout

Many contributing factors are emotional, as the circumstances present situations that the caregiver is not accustomed to. Nonetheless, caregivers often push through difficulties to meet their needs and those of the person they care for. As time passes, they may experience burnout. Pay attention to your mind, body, and interactions. If you experience these symptoms, you may be experiencing caregiver burnout.

Physical symptoms of caregiver burnout

  • Drained energy.
  • Extreme tiredness or exhaustion
  • Sleep issues (sleeping too much or too little).
  • Weight loss or gain due to a change in your diet.
  • Headaches or stomachaches.
  • Reduced immunity.

Emotional symptoms of caregiver burnout

  • Withdrawing from or losing interest in previously loved activities.
  • Feeling guilty about focusing on your interests, desires, and needs.
  • Feeling as if caregiving has taken over your life.
  • Unusual impatience, irritability, or conflict with the person you care for and others.
  • Concerns about the future.
  • A sense of helplessness.
  • Mood swings.
  • Increased difficulty dealing with everyday situations.

Prevent caregiver burnout

If a caregiver experiences many symptoms of burnout simultaneously, the increased physical and emotional stress can negatively impact their health and relationships. The caregiver may want to help their loved one, but knowing how to care for another person and protect their health is difficult. This is why a caregiver should not consider self-care a luxury or reward. Just like it’s necessary to ensure a loved one gets to their doctor’s appointments or takes their medication on time, it’s crucial to take care of your mental and physical well-being. The following ideas can help lessen and prevent caregiver burnout:

  • Talk it out. Identify a reliable person, such as a friend or family member, you can talk to. You can also talk to a qualified individual. A professional counselor can be a valuable resource who can listen and provide helpful advice or tools to cope with difficult situations.
  • Learn to recognize burnout. Understand your limitations and be truthful with yourself about your situation. Recognize and embrace your vulnerability to caregiver burnout.
  • Allow yourself to feel. It’s natural to feel down about caring for someone sometimes, especially if you have a lot on your plate. Allow yourself to feel emotions instead of pushing them away. Recognize your feelings in a given moment, sit with them, and consider how to minimize them or get help to decrease the regularity of the stress.
  • Find a support group. Support groups exist for people in many situations. Talking to people in similar situations can help you manage stress, find resources, and better understand your emotions.
  • Create realistic expectations. Realistically assess your abilities and the person’s needs. It’s important to embrace the possibility of needing help to provide the right level of care. Many in-home care providers exist, and they can come to the home to help assist your loved one with specific tasks. There are also other residential facilities like assisted living, memory care, and nursing homes that staff trained individuals to provide the appropriate care needed.
  • Educate yourself. Whether your loved one is aging and relatively healthy or has a terminal illness, consider researching the person’s condition or situation. The more you understand, the more effective you will be in providing care, and the less often unexpected things may happen. 
  • Consider getting respite care services to help. Caregivers can take a break with the help of respite care services. Examples include brief visits to nursing homes or assisted living facilities and shorter periods of in-home care. Adult day care programs also help caregivers ensure loved ones are safe and happy during the weekday hours.
  • Don’t neglect yourself. Even though you’re preoccupied with someone else, it’s essential to make time for yourself — even if it’s only for an hour or two. Remember that looking after oneself is not a luxury. It is a must-have item for caregivers. If your schedule feels like it’s impossible to take even a little time to rest, then that may be a sign that it’s too much for one person to handle, and other family members or outside help should play a part in the caregiving process.

Resources to find caregiver support groups

Many of these steps are easier said than done. It might feel like you need to “get through the day,” but when that is every day, caring for a loved one can be a challenge. To maximize the enjoyment of the person you love whom you’re caring for, you can take a few steps to help yourself help them. The following organizations offer help for caregivers and may help them navigate life as a caregiver.

Takeaway

Understanding the signs of caregiver burnout is important if you want to spot problems early and maybe even stop them from happening. Recognizing and coping with caregiver burnout can help you care for yourself and your loved one. It can, in turn, help preserve your health and relationships while helping your loved one in need.