Surviving Caregiver Burnout: Sound Steps to Guide You!

Thanks to advancements in medical science, Americans are now living longer than a generation ago. Presently, 36.5 million people or 12 percent of the U.S. population are 65 years of age or older. Within this group, nearly five million are age 85 or older. It is estimated that by the year 2050, 87 million Americans (21 percent) will reach age 65 and beyond.

While extending one's lifespan may be a modern miracle, for millions of Americans, this astounding growth has taken the act of care giving for a loved one from a historically temporary situation, to a new life stage called care giving that can and does now last decades.

Sixty five percent of persons with long-term care needs rely exclusively on family and friends to provide assistance, and it is estimated that 59 to 75 percent of those providing the care are married women working outside of the home. While men do provide assistance, female caregivers spend as much as 50 percent more time providing care than males.

With these astounding statistics, it is easy to surmise that care giving is a growing demand and one that requires immediate attention and support.

Care giving is an important and stressful job. Most folks enter into it from an emotionally fragile place where their worst fears can be, and often are, realized. If you are caregiver and want to survive this life stage, you must surrender your uncertainty about what to do and commit yourself to acting on a well thought out plan. Like any successful enterprise, having an understanding about what you are about to enter into will help you accept your new role and give you a roadmap for coping.

Steps for Coping
Unless you become an "accidental caregiver" meaning that something happened suddenly, it's usually a slow process that creeps up on you. The signs are different for each individual, but they are definitely present. I encourage you to be pragmatic. Here are some steps to approach the process.

1) Become an Observer -- You must take yourself to the place of a distant observer, where you can view the situation from an unemotional, well thought-out, objective place. By standing back and removing yourself temporarily from the center of the "storm", you will gain perspective and this will go miles in helping you create a plan.

2) Define Your Roles and Responsibilities -As a caregiver; particularly if you are female, it is natural for you to be tempted to try to do everything for your loved one. Depending on the condition of your loved one's health, you may find yourself having to do many things they previously did for themselves, such as personal grooming, driving to appointments or day-to-day household duties. Responsibilities such as these have the potential to cause undue stress. Even if the person is greatly dependent upon you for their care, you will find that you are better able to maintain your own mental and physical health, and the dignity of the person for whom you are caring, if your roles and responsibilities are clearly defined.

3) Practice Open Communication -- This is not the time to be shy about your needs. It is the key to your survival, and you must clarify your role through open communication. Unless your loved one is mentally incapacitated, you must talk about his/her wants and needs, and be sure to make yours clear as well. Discuss today's necessities, but plan for the future. In time, you may find yourself with increased responsibilities such as, medical, home maintenance, legal and financial matters. Make certain that you not only understand what your fiduciary boundaries are, but to whom you can refer to for other important decisions when the time comes.

I cannot stress enough that in order to survive the caregiving process and total burnout; you must set up systems to help you. You do not have to do this alone. Help is available; the time you take to understand where it is and how to access it, will be crucial to your survival.

Surviving Caregiver Burnout
Caregiver burnout is a real condition and should not be taken lightly. It is described as "a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that may be accompanied by a change in attitude from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned." Burnout can occur for any number of reasons, but usually does because the caregiver has tried to do more than she is able, either physically or financially, (or both). Burnout symptoms include:
  • Social withdrawal from friends, family and loved ones. 
  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed. 
  • A constant feeling of hopelessness or irritability and helplessness. 
  • Changes in weight, sleeplessness coupled with complete emotional and physical exhaustion. 
  • Frequent illness.

How to Avoid Burnout? 
The best way you can avoid caregiver burnout is to create and use a well-planned support system:
  • Set realistic goals and turn to others for relief with certain tasks. 
  • Stay realistic about the illness you are confronting. Your role is not to heal, but to help make life manageable for your loved one. 
  • Set aside time for yourself. This is not a luxury, but a necessity. 
  • Talk to a professional if you feel your life is spinning out of control. You cannot afford not to. 
  • Explore/research respite care services and options. 
  • Educate yourself, take the time to research, and learn. There is a plethora of information available. 
  • Stick to the basics: eat right, exercise and get plenty of rest. Know when it's okay to turn off the phone and be quiet. 
  • Pamper yourself. Take a bath; a long shower; spend time in nature; tap into your own spirituality and ask for help. 
  • Accept your feelings of frustration and anger as normal. 
  • Join a care giving support group. Sharing your feelings with others in your same situation can be extremely helpful. Support groups help you manage stress, locate resources and provide a venue to reduce feelings of frustration and isolation. 
  • Make time for activities you enjoy. 
  • Caregiving is rewarding, but there will be times when you will also feel anger, sadness, frustration and grief. Try not to judge your feelings. They are neither good nor bad, but rather a normal part of being human.
Care giving is hard work, filled with numerous demands. Sadly, many caregivers lose perspective about the importance of their role and feel guilty if they spend time on themselves. You cannot care for another person if you do not care for yourself. You must be kind to yourself and embrace the idea that your role as a caregiver is vital to our society. You are engaged in the ultimate service - giving of yourself to another person. Honor your role and honor yourself.

By Cindy Laverty, founder of The Care Company

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