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Over the past few decades, it has become increasingly common for family members to step into a caregiver role for adult family members. Often, these family caregivers lack formal health care training, but they are motivated by their love for the person needing care and by financial pressures such as the skyrocketing cost of institutional assisted living. While caregiving is laudable and can be a rewarding experience, many neglect their own care and fall into a pit of despair or worse. There are ways to stay grounded and avoid caregiver burnout.
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How Caregivers Lose Touch
Family members often fall into the caregiver role. They often accept the role with optimism and gusto, believing that since they are family, they will provide the best possible care. While they are correct to say that their intentions would be personal and, therefore, potentially more attentive, the reality is that family caregivers quickly realize the difficulty of the job.
There are three stages of caregiver stress:
- Frustration. The optimism that fueled the initial caregiver relationship quickly devolves when the caregiver begins to have feelings of frustration. The caregiver may feel that nothing they do will make the situation better, and they may be correct — often the diseases and conditions that call for family caregivers are terminal. When no amount of nursing results in improvement, there is an understandable amount of exasperation.
- Isolation. Often, the conditions require 24/7 care. This can remove the caregiver from their normal routine and residence. When someone has nothing in their life other than providing care in a situation full of discontent, they may avoid social situations and the normal life routines they enjoyed prior to the care.
- Despair. As the patient comes closer to the end of their life, there can be an overwhelming sense of dread and guilt that the caregiver shoulders.
Signs of Caregiver Burnout
Following the three stages of caregiver stress, the following are signs that the situation is unhealthy and the caregiver needs a break or some assistance:
- Lack of energy.
- Sleeping irregularly, either too much or not enough.
- Withdrawal from social situations, avoiding friends, and avoiding things that once gave the caregiver joy.
- Losing interest in hobbies.
- Feelings of hopelessness.
A particularly harmful sign is when a caregiver resorts to self-medicating to alleviate their stress. Taking drugs or drinking excessively could result in harming yourself and the one you care for.
If you experience any of these signs, it’s time to take a break and recharge. Although you may feel that respite is not possible, there are numerous resources available to provide family caregivers with a break. These include calling on other family members, volunteer organizations, and paid short-term in-house assistance providers. Sometimes a family is unaware of benefits that may be available through government assistance. Reach out to your local senior resources provider for more information.
Beyond reaching out for a helping hand from others, family caregivers can recharge their batteries through self-care. Self-care refers to the steps we take to provide comfort in our lives. Self-care is a complementary treatment for everything from addition to weight loss, and it can alleviate many of the symptoms of caregiver stress.
Some particularly effective self-care techniques for caregivers include:
- Exercising regularly.
- Eating a balanced, healthy diet.
- Socializing with friends.
- Enjoying quiet time, meditating, and being mindful.
- Connecting with your spirituality.
- Taking time each day to do one thing that makes you happy.
If you neglect sleep as a caregiver, burnout is far more likely. Avoid sugar and caffeine near bedtime and create a sleep-friendly environment in your bedroom, which can include purchasing some blackout curtains and repainting your room in a more soothing color. Listen to some relaxing music or sounds before you sleep—a portable Bluetooth speaker is ideal for this purpose.
Caregiver stress comes about quickly and silently. All caregivers should be aware of its potential and follow these tips to avoid the feelings of frustration, isolation, and despair. By remembering to care for yourself, a caregiver will become effective at their labor of love.