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Caring for Caretakers

How to avoid caregiver burnout


By Lucy Maher


Each day, scores of Americans look after Mom or Dad, whether that’s taking them to the doctor’s office, helping them shop for groceries, making sure they are taking their medications, or eating their meals. 

In fact, there are 40.4 million unpaid caregivers of adults ages 65 and older in the U.S. Of them, nine out of ten are caring for an aging relative, and a majority for a parent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With that can come a unique kind of stress, with caregivers feeling pulled between the responsibilities they have to their own families, and work, and the needs of their aging parent.

“Caregiver burnout is essentially stress caused by a number of factors and varies based on the type of care a caregiver is providing,” says William Fleming, Pharm.D., president of Healthcare Services at Humana. “Most commonly, caregiver burnout is caused by the feeling of being overwhelmed and the inability to meet constant needs and demands from a loved one or patient.

Whether they’re doing simple chores such as checking in a couple times a week to more heavy-duty, daily tasks like bathing, feeding, or administering medication, caregivers—who once relied on Mom or Dad to look after them—can find this new dynamic challenging. 

Signs of burnout include “depression and loneliness, changes in how a caregiver is caring for his or her loved one, and missing personal appointments and/or no longer participating in activities the caregiver previously enjoyed,” Dr. Fleming says.

The good news is that there are concrete steps one can take to reduce stress and burnout.

Take Time For Yourself

When you’re juggling both your family’s needs and those of an aging parent, carving out time to take care of your needs often takes a backseat. It shouldn’t, since taking care of yourself is a must if you are going to be effective in taking care of someone else.

Dr. Fleming says caregivers may rely on snacks or may eat-on-the-go, scrimp on sleep, and miss their own appointments when looking after a parent. Avoid that by setting aside time for meals, and make getting enough rest a priority. Don’t put off seeing your own doctors or healthcare providers.

“Taking time for yourself also means taking care of your emotional needs, spending time with your friends and family and participating in activities you enjoy like exercising, cooking or reading,” Dr. Fleming advises.

Know Your Limits

No one can be “on” 24/7. Avoid burnout by taking breaks from time to time, whether it’s to spend a day pampering yourself, or an afternoon tackling your personal to-do list so you feel more on top of things.

One way to do this is to have someone—a friend, relative or sibling—you can tap to take your place from time to time, so you can go out to dinner, take a long bike ride or run, or see a movie with your kids. 

If you’re flying solo, Eldercare Locator can connect you with local services (the site is searchable by zip code) to help with in-home care, meal delivery, and transportation services. Many areas also have adult day-care centers, with some offering more social settings and others focused on medical and therapeutic services.

“There is no shame in asking for help and support,” says Amy Goyer, AARP Family & Caregiving Expert, and author of Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. “Relatives, friends, or community-based services can all be sources of help along with volunteer or paid care. Case managers can help you manage your loved ones’ care. Remember that people who help you manage your life so you are free to do your caregiving tasks are also a part of the caregiving team.”

Maintain Your Identity

Has your weekly tennis match gone by the wayside now that you’re looking after mom? What about the gardening you like to get done on Saturday mornings before the family has awoken?

Goyer says it’s important to prioritize the things that either help you manage stress, like exercise, or bring you joy, like hobbies, so you don’t become consumed with your caregiving responsibilities.

“Cultivate your interests and hobbies, and your relationships,” she says. “These are the things that make you, you. Is work or volunteering a part of your identity? Determine how you can maintain those things at least to a degree while caregiving.”

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