“For God is not unjust. He will not forget how hard you have worked for him and how you have shown your love to him by caring for other believers, as you still do. Our great desire is that you will keep on loving others as long as life lasts, in order to make certain that what you hope for will come true. Then you will not become spiritually dull and indifferent. Instead, you will follow the example of those who are going to inherit God’s promises because of their faith and endurance.” Hebrews 6:10-12.
The demands of caregiving can be exhausting and overwhelming. But there are steps you can take to rein in stress and regain a sense of balance, joy, and hope in your life.
Who is considered a caregiver?
In simple terms, a caregiver is a person who tends to the needs or concerns of a person with short- or long-term limitations due to illness, injury or disability. Most of us, during our lifetime, will be considered a caregiver at some point.
What is caregiver burnout?
While caring for a loved one can be very rewarding, it also involves many stressors. And since caregiving is often a long-term challenge, the emotional impact can snowball over time. You may face years or even decades of caregiving responsibilities. It can be particularly disheartening if you feel that you’re in over your head, if there’s no hope that your family member will get better, or if, despite your best efforts, their condition is gradually deteriorating.
If the stress of caregiving is left unchecked, it can take a toll on your health, relationships, and state of mind—eventually leading to burnout, a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. And when you get to that point, both you and the person you’re caring for suffer.
That’s why taking care of yourself isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Cultivating your own emotional and physical well-being is just as important as making sure your family member gets to their doctor’s appointment or takes their medication on time.
Signs and symptoms of caregiver stress and burnout
Learning to recognize the signs of caregiver stress and burnout is important, so you can take immediate action to prevent things from becoming worse and start improving the situation for both you and the person you're caring for.
Common signs and symptoms of caregiver stress:
Anxiety, depression, irritability.
Feeling tired and run down.
Overreacting to minor nuisances.
New or worsening health problems.
Feeling increasingly resentful.
Drinking, smoking, or eating more.
Cutting back on leisure activities.
Common signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout
You have much less energy than you once had.
It seems like you catch every cold or bout of flu that’s going around.
You’re constantly exhausted, even after sleeping or taking a break.
You neglect your own needs, either because you’re too busy or you don’t care anymore.
Your life revolves around caregiving, but it gives you little satisfaction.
You have trouble relaxing, even when help is available.
You’re increasingly impatient and irritable with the person you’re caring for.
You feel helpless and hopeless.
How to cope
While caring for a loved one will never be stress-free, the following tips can help you to lighten the load, avoid the symptoms of caregiver burnout, and find more balance in your life.
Practice acceptance. When faced with the unfairness of a loved one's illness or the burden of caregiving, there's often a need to make sense of the situation and ask “Why?” But you can spend a tremendous amount of energy dwelling on things you can't change and for which there are no clear answers. And at the end of the day, you won't feel any better. Try to avoid the emotional trap of feeling sorry for yourself or searching for someone to blame.
Embrace your caregiving choice. Acknowledge that, despite any resentments or burdens you feel, you have made a conscious choice to provide care. Focus on the positive reasons behind that choice. Perhaps you provide care to repay your parent for the care they gave you growing up. Or maybe it’s because of your values or the example you want to set for your children. These deep, meaningful motivations can help sustain you through difficult times.
Don't let caregiving take over your life. Since it's easier to accept a difficult situation when there are other areas of your life that are rewarding, it's important not to let caregiving take over your whole existence. Invest in things that give you meaning and purpose whether it's your family, church, a favorite hobby, or your career.
Focus on the things you can control. You can’t wish for more hours in the day or force your brother to help out more. Rather than stressing out over things you can’t control, focus on how you choose to react to problems.
Celebrate the small victories. If you start to feel discouraged, remind yourself that all your efforts matter. You don’t have to cure your loved one’s illness to make a difference. Don’t underestimate the importance of making your loved one feel more safe, comfortable, and loved!
Imagine how your loved one would respond if they were healthy. If they weren’t preoccupied with illness or pain (or disabled by dementia), how would your loved one feel about the love and care you’re giving? Remind yourself that the person would express gratitude if they were able.
Talk to a supportive family member, church member or friend. Positive reinforcement doesn’t have to come from the person you’re caring for. When you’re feeling unappreciated, turn to friends and family who will listen to you and acknowledge your efforts.
Ask for caregiving help
Taking on all of the responsibilities of caregiving without regular breaks or assistance is a surefire recipe for caregiver burnout. Don’t try to do it all alone.
What can congregations do?
Congregations can form a meal chain, prayer chain, offer one hour breaks to allow a caregiver to go out, get a cup etc. Respite care is vital to caregiver health.
Speak up. Don’t expect friends and family members to automatically know what you need or how you’re feeling. Be up front about what’s going on with you and the person that you’re caring for. If you have concerns or thoughts about how to improve the situation, express them, even if you’re unsure of how they’ll be received. Start a dialogue.
Spread the responsibility. Try to get as many family members involved as possible. Even someone who lives far away can help. You may also want to divide up caregiving tasks. One person can take care of medical responsibilities, another with finances and bills, and another with groceries and errands, for example.
Set up a regular check-in. Ask a family member, friend, or volunteer from your church or senior center to call you at a regular time (daily, weekly, or as often as you think you need it). This person can help you spread status updates and coordinate with other family members.
Say “yes” when someone offers assistance. Don’t be shy about accepting help. Let people feel good about supporting you. It’s smart to have a list ready of small tasks that others could easily take care of, such as picking up groceries or driving your loved one to an appointment.
Give yourself a break
As a busy caregiver, leisure time may seem like an impossible luxury. But you owe it to yourself—as well as to the person you’re caring for—to carve it into your schedule. Give yourself permission to rest and to do things that you enjoy on a daily basis. You will be a better caregiver for it.
There’s a difference between being busy and being productive. If you’re not regularly taking time-off to de-stress and recharge your batteries, you’ll end up accomplishing less in the long run. After a break, you should feel more energetic and focused, so you’ll quickly make up for your relaxation time.
Maintain your personal relationships. Don’t let your friendships get lost in the shuffle of caregiving. These relationships will help sustain you and keep you positive. If it’s difficult to leave the house, invite friends over to visit with you over coffee, tea, or dinner.
Share your feelings. The simple act of expressing what you're going through can be very cathartic. Sharing your feelings with family or friends won't make you a burden to others. In fact, most people will be flattered that you trust them enough to confide in them, and it will only strengthen your bond.
Prioritize activities that bring you enjoyment. Make regular time for hobbies that bring you happiness, whether it’s reading, working in the garden, tinkering in your workshop, knitting, playing with the dogs, or watching the game.
Make yourself laugh. Laughter is an excellent antidote to stress—and a little goes a long way. Read a funny book, watch a comedy, or call a friend who makes you laugh. And whenever you can, try to find the humor in everyday situations.
Get out of the house. Seek out friends, family, and respite care providers to step in with caregiving so you can have some time away from the home.
Take care of your own health
Think of your body like a car. With the right fuel and proper maintenance, it will run reliably and well. Neglect its upkeep and it will start to give you trouble. Don’t add to the stress of your caregiving situation with avoidable health woes.
Exercise. When you’re stressed and tired, the last thing you feel like doing is exercising. But you’ll feel better afterwards. Exercise is a powerful stress reliever and mood enhancer. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes on most days—break it up into three 10-minute sessions if that's easier. When you exercise regularly, you’ll also find it boosts your energy level and helps you fight fatigue. Ask a church member to walk with you a few times a week. Pairing up will encourage you to stick with a walking regime.
Practice a relaxation technique. A daily relaxation or meditation practice can help you relieve stress and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation. Even a few minutes in the middle of an overwhelming day can help you feel more centered.
Eat well. Nourish your body with fresh fruit, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats such as fish, nuts, and olive oil. Unlike sugar and caffeine—which provide a quick pick-me-up and an even quicker crash—these foods will fuel you with steady energy.
Don’t skimp on sleep. Cutting back on time in bed is counterproductive—at least if your goal is to accomplish more. Most people need more sleep than they think (8 hours is the norm). When you get less, your mood, energy, productivity, and ability to handle stress will suffer.
Join a caregiver support group
A caregiver support group is a great way to share your troubles and find people who are going through similar experiences each day. If you can't leave the house, many online groups are also available. (Melinda Smith, M.A.)
Colleen Bottcher RN, BSN, FCN
NJ District LCMS Parish Nurse Rep.