Being a caregiver can be a privilege, an act of love, a sacred responsibility, or a personal calling. It can also be incredibly challenging. If you are a sole or primary caregiver for someone who is highly dependent on you for their safety and wellbeing, you may find yourself experiencing feelings of disconnectedness, serious stress or burnout.
Nearly 30% of adults in the United States are caregivers, spending around 20 hours a week caring for someone in their home. That’s more than 1,040 hours a year spent being a caretaker – half of a typical work week on top of often already very full lives.
Recognizing the signs of caregiver exhaustion can help you know when it’s time for a step back for some self-care. Finding ways to nourish your own body and soul will help you stay healthy and active, giving you more physical, emotional, and mental energy to continue in your role as a caregiver.
Signs of caregiver stress or exhaustion
If you have been acting as a caregiver and have noticed marked changes in your health, activities, and state of mind, it’s time for an evaluation. The symptoms below can be warning signs that you are approaching caregiver burnout.
You may initially see signs that present physically and it can be tempting to wave them off as just part and parcel of the added responsibilities as a caretaker. In reality, however, these signs can be key indicators that you’re not longer taking time to care for your personal physical needs. Physical signs of caregiver stress include:
- Constant fatigue and exhaustion
- Trouble sleeping – too much or too little
- Unhealthy eating habits
- Noticeable weight loss or weight gain
- Departure from a regular hygiene routine
- Headaches or stomach aches
- Constant illness such as a cold, the flu, persistent cough, etc.
Mental and emotional signs
Your mental and emotional state can become impacted after time working as a caregiver, especially if you are sleep deprived and/or have a personal relationship with the person you are caring for. Mental and emotional signs of caregiver stress include:
- Avoidance of things you once enjoyed
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Anxiety over your future
- Depression, guilt and/or mood swings
- Impatience, irritability, frustration or anger
- Difficulty coping with ordinary situations and tasks
Taking care of yourself makes you a stronger, more compassionate caregiver
If you think you are experiencing caregiver stress, you probably are. Here are some ways you can help yourself restore a healthy body and mindset.
Take care of yourself physically
Find time to do the things that keep you healthy and fit. If you’re sick, malnourished, or sleep-deprived, you won’t be able to continue as a caregiver.
- Eat healthy foods. When you fix meals for your loved one, fix yourself something healthy as well. If you have to do a lot of physical work as a caregiver, keep energy bars on hand and fruit available for a quick pick-me-up. Avoid skipping meals – even a small meal on-the-go can make a big difference in your energy levels and ability to complete all the tasks on your caregiver to-do list.
- Attend personal doctor and dental appointments. It can be easy to get caught up in the medical needs of the person you are caring for but don’t neglect your own health needs. Share any concerns you have with your doctor. They may be able to help you with sleep issues, fatigue, or muscle aches and pains related to your role as a caregiver.
- Exercise whenever possible. You may get a workout as a caregiver, but it’s essential to look for endorphin-generating exercise as well. Consider a brisk walk at the beginning or end of a caretaking session, or put on a workout show and get your blood pumping. If you can get out of the house with the person, you care for, consider ways to enjoy your workout time together. Seek community-based groups or “buddy” apps where you can get motivation and accountability to stay on track.
- Make time for hygiene. Showering, putting on clean clothes, brushing and flossing your teeth, and doing other small self-care tasks can all improve your health and quality of life. Just taking an extra moment to let the hot water of a shower flow over you after washing your hair, applying lotions to dry or cracked skin, or styling your hair can improve your sense of wellbeing.
Take care of yourself mentally and emotionally
Your mental and emotional state can be one of the hardest things to control, and you can become deeply stressed or depressed without even realizing it when you shove your own needs to the back burner.
- Meditate or journal. Your way of letting out your mental strain will depend on what you believe in and what works for you. Taking time for meditation can help you let go of stress. So can writing things down at the end of the day. Doing so helps you to recognize which things you can control, which are beyond your control, and how to come to terms with the fact that you may not be able to “fix” everything.
- Let go of the guilt. Many caregivers struggle with the feeling of guilt. They may feel that the situation is their fault, or that it could be better if only they weren’t failing at some preconceived goal. Accept that the situation is what it is, and find ways to think positively about what you are doing in the here and now.
- Consider therapy. Whether you seek one-on-one care or join a therapy group, therapy can be helpful. It can help you build awareness of your mental state and learn to better articulate your thoughts. Remember to always be on guard for signs of depression and be ready to seek help if you feel you could be depressed.
- Be ready for transitions. Your caregiver role may change over time. You might be asked to take on even more tasks, and you should be prepared to know your limits and push for alternatives if the load seems like could overwhelm you. Likewise, be prepared for a time when you may no longer be needed in such an intense capacity. Things change
Ask for help
Asking for help doesn’t make you weak or stand as a sign of failure or defeat. By asking for help, you acknowledge that you are human and that caregiving can be hard. Look into ways to get the help you need, including:
- Family leave. The Family Medical Leave Act can grant you up to 26 workweeks a year to care for a family member. This time is typically unpaid leave, but it does allow you to take time off here and there while maintaining job security.
- Caregiver respite. Respite care can help you find the time you need to take care of yourself as a caregiver. You can be assured that everything is being done correctly in your absence, and be free to go to the dentist, get a good night’s sleep, or spend some time with family and friends. Adult Day programs can offer caregivers a regular opportunity for respite and offer the added benefit of giving your loved one a chance to get out of the house and socialize.
- Programs that can offer outside help. AAA 1-B can help connect you to programs like Meals on Wheels, Adult Day centers or government-funded in-home care programs. Calling the AAA 1-B Information & Assistance Telephone line to be a good first step in finding help. We can help you understand your options and find them. It’s a free call: 800-852-7795.
- Classes that help you cope. Our Powerful Tools for Caregivers class is a six-week class held in a small-group setting that can help caregivers learn how to reduce stress and take care of themselves. Classes are being scheduled continuously throughout our six-county region, and there’s probably one coming up near you.
By taking care of yourself, you will be able to continue being the best caregiver possible. It’s not selfish to focus on yourself when appropriate – it’s the smart way to ensure you are in the best shape to provide attentive, responsible care.