When Does Stress Turn Into Caregiver Burnout?

In a recent essay for USA Today, actor and director Rob Lowe wrote of the stress of being a caregiver for his ailing mother and called for greater awareness of and help for caregiver burnout. Lowe writes that, along with his brother, “we did everything we could to support [his mother], from hospitals to hospice care. This often meant trying to figure out and manage her medical paperwork, medication schedules and in-house help, and continually redefining an ever-changing “new normal” for all of us. I often felt overwhelmed, and that was even with all the support I had from my brothers and colleagues.”

An estimated 44 million adults are unpaid caregivers for at least one family member. With an estimated 74 million baby boomers in 2016 and the United States Census Bureau estimating that in 10 years, over 20% of the American population will be age 65 or older, the number of caregivers is expected to grow.

Caregiving can be a full-time job, and often falls on adult children that are juggling careers while still raising children of their own. In 2017, an Embracing Carers survey found that caregiving affected every part of a caregivers life, from the emotional (49% reported suffering from feelings of depression), to the physical (70% reported feeling tired “most of the time”) and the financial (38% reported feeling financial pressure).

When a person’s resources—emotional, physical, financial—are spread too thinly to be sustainable, they may experience symptoms of caregiver burnout. These symptoms are similar to those of depression, and they include:

  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Feeling blue, irritable, hopeless, and helpless
  • Changes in appetite, weight, or both
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Lowered immune system
  • Feelings of wanting to hurt yourself or the person for whom you are caring
  • Emotional and physical exhaustion
  • Excessive use of alcohol and/or sleep medications

You may also notice that the way you care for your loved one is changing:

  • Your gentle, unhurried approach to providing care is disappearing or gone.
  • You raise your voice at your loved one more often lately. Later, you feel upset and guilty.
  • You often skip aspects of your loved one's care that are important to his or her well-being because they're just too difficult.
  • Your own family is experiencing dysfunction, and your care for your loved one is harming your family.

What can you do if you’re experiencing burnout? As Rob Lowe wrote,

"From my own experience, I can assure you: The person you’re caring for needs you to be at your best. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t have the energy or the means to provide the reliable care that your loved ones need. But what can you do for yourself, especially if you feel like you don’t have enough time as it is for your job, your family and your caregiving duties?

Ask for help."

If you see symptoms of caregiver burnout in yourself, try these strategies:

  • Find time for yourself, and don’t feel guilty for taking care of your own needs. This means taking the time to have nutritious food, exercise, and adequate sleep.
  • Recognize your limits. You may reach a point when you don’t have the capacity to do more. If that’s the case, it may be time to bring on additional care or move your loved one to assisted living.
  • Find someone to talk to. A friend, a neighbor, a support group— sometimes just the act of sharing and talking about your experiences can help unburden you.
  • Take people up on their offers to help. Whether it’s cooking a batch of freezer-friendly food or taking care of some housekeeping, let those around you know what they can do to make things easier for you. You’ll find that most people will be happy to help when they’re pointed in the right direction.
  • Prioritize tasks. If you only have the energy to either cook dinner or vacuum the house, don’t try to do both. Instead, focus your energy on what matters most.
  • Seek professional help when you need it. If you’re experiencing feelings of depression or anxiety, talk to a health professional.
  • Know that the negative emotions you might be feeling are normal. Perhaps you’re angry at having to be a caregiver or maybe you feel guilty that you aren’t doing “enough.” If these emotions are overwhelming, you may benefit from therapy.

Please be advised that the information presented here is for information purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. All readers are encouraged to discuss any issues or concerns they may have with their behavioral health providers.