What is “caregiver burnout”? And what do I do if I have it?

Family responsibilities may have made you the caregiver for another family member. But those same responsibilities may put you in need or care, as well.
Family responsibilities may have made you the caregiver for another family member. But those same responsibilities may put you in need or care, as well.

Caregiving for an older family member can be a rewarding experience that allows you to draw on your innate abilities to provide needed assistance while sharing quality time with someone you love.

However, we also know that it can be a demanding, draining experience for someone you may not like very much that’s depressing, saps your own interest in life and affects your own health.

Sometimes, depending on the day of the week or even the hour of the day, it can quickly shift from one to the other.

When the bad days outnumber the good days, however, both you and the person you’re caring for will suffer. By learning to recognize the symptoms of caregiver stress, you can take steps to prevent burnout from occurring. Or, if you’ve already reached the point of caregiver burnout, you can take action to reduce or eliminate it.

Here are some things you’ll want to consider:

Signs and symptoms of caregiver stress

If you’re beginning to see even only a few of these symptoms, it’s time to start making adjustments before the situation gets worse—for you and the one you’re caring for:

  • You’re more anxious, irritable and/or depressed for no apparent reason
  • You feel tired and run down—even though you’re getting plenty of “rest”
  • You have difficulty sleeping—even without interruption
  • You overreact to minor nuisances
  • You’re developing unexpected new health problems—or existing ones have begun to worsen
  • You have difficulty concentrating on even the smallest of tasks
  • You’re beginning to feel increasingly resentful of the situation
  • You’ve begun to smoke, drink and/or eat more
  • You’re beginning to cut back on responsibilities and activities you once enjoyed because you “just don’t feel like it” anymore
  • You can’t remember the last time you did something “just for you” – or when you did, you felt guilty about it
  • Your other family members of friends tell you that you need a break

Signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout

If you’ve gotten to this stage, it’s time to take immediate action and make some changes:

  • You’re constantly fighting a cold or “flu”—when you used to never be sick
  • You feel exhausted constantly, even after taking a break or sleeping—and even when there’s no apparent reason
  • You neglect your own personal needs because you’re too busy or just don’t care anymore
  • Your life revolves around caregiving, but it no longer gives you any satisfaction
  • You’re increasingly impatient and irritable—whether it’s with the corner cashier or the one you’re caring for
  • You have trouble relaxing, even when help is available
  • You feel helpless to make any real difference in the situation
  • You become more prone to accidents—whether it’s dropping a plate, banging up the car or cutting yourself while you’re slicing up the carrots
  • You stop seeking information and support—when you once researched her condition and looked into solutions
  • You don’t feel like talking with or seeing anyone—even formerly close family and friends
  • You’re beginning to have thoughts of either hurting yourself or the one you’re caring for

If you are in crisis, please reach out and call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

If you’re experiencing any or all of the symptoms of caregiver burnout, it’s time to get help. Now. No matter what promises you’ve made. No matter what feelings of guilt you may have or others may place upon you. It’s a fact. You can’t help the one you’re caring for if your own health is destroyed.

How to regain balance in your life

First, and most importantly, realize that you’re not powerless, even though you may not feel you have the energy to make any changes and you can’t see a clear path out of your current situation. There are things you can do to begin to feel empowered, regain balance in your life and begin to feel hopeful and positive again.

Focus on the things you can control

You can’t change a diagnosis that will only get worse as time progresses. You can’t force your brother to visit and help out. And you have to understand that you can’t win an argument with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. Please understand that you are arguing with a disease process—not someone you once loved and cared for.

Rather than stressing out and becoming anxious over things that you can’t control, focus on the things you can control and how you react to them. While the one you’re caring for may not appreciate the homemade soup you just made for lunch, you can still take pride in what you created—knowing that your own family will enjoy the leftovers when you go home. If you can’t get out to see friends, invite them to come over to visit. Both you and your loved one will enjoy the diversion.

And don’t forget to celebrate small victories. Yes, it was extremely difficult and time-consuming to get your mother to her doctor’s appointment. On the other hand, your mother was given a new medication that will help her condition. And you asked the doctor for a referral to a counselor to help you cope better with it, as well.

Remember, physicians aren’t just available for the person under your care. Neither are support groups or community organizations. During business hours, at least, the majority are waiting by the phone and want to talk with you. That’s exactly what they’re in business for.

Seek out community-based services

If you don’t ask, you’ll never know what assistance is available. And it could be just down the street at the local community center. Or it could be on your doorstep tomorrow at lunchtime through Meals On Wheels.

The fact of the matter is that in any medium-to-larger community, there are a wealth of community-based services to provide adult day-care, respite, and meals. Much of it can be low-cost or no-cost. Check the yellow pages, do a Google search, ask your doctor or hospital, or call a local organization that deals with your loved one’s health issues. National organizations such as the National Council on Aging or Area Agency on Aging all have local affiliates that can provide recommendations, as well.

Think you’d like to join a support group but don’t know how you’d ever find the time? You don’t even have to leave your own home or that of your loved one to get immediate help. Just visit the websites of organizations dedicated to your loved one’s particular health concern and they’ll happily put you in contact with an online support group.

Speak up

Don’t expect family and friends to know what you’re going through if you always tell them things are “fine” when (or if) they ask. Let them know your concerns and thoughts—whether they ask or not. Ask for help. And spread the responsibilities.

Say “yes” when someone offers assistance. Be prepared to tell them specifically what they can do. And then step back and let them do it while expressing appreciation for the results—no matter how good or bad their efforts may prove to be.

Then be prepared to step away and not micromanage their efforts. The more often you can do that, the more often they’ll be available to help and the more often you’ll be able to step away.

Hire a professional caregiver

If there are no other family members to assist or if you’re having challenges with their availability and abilities, you can still hire a caregiver. For a few hours a day. Or a few days a week. The point is that you need to step away. Now. You need to get real rest.

There are both medically-based and non-medically based home care services available in most any community. Depending upon which you choose, they may be professionally trained to provide assistance with everything from basic activities of daily living to administering medications correctly.

Yes, you know exactly how your father likes his lunch. And you know exactly which of your mother’s favorite TV shows comes on at what time. But you had to learn that from them to begin with. Your parents both accommodated and survived the process. They can work with a new caregiver, as well.

Consider placement in a care facility

Yes, you may have once promised your mother that you would never place her in a nursing home. But that was before a series of debilitating strokes left her unable to communicate—and your health a wreck. You’re not abandoning her if you start looking into a care facility.

You weren’t trained to be a professional caregiver for the rest of her life. And she wouldn’t want your health, your family and your finances to be destroyed in the process. You can only do what you can do. After that, you have to let others do.

Look into your local caring options—whether it is an assisted living, memory care or nursing facility. Then take the first step by putting her name on a waiting list. Just that alone may relieve your stress knowing you have an option in your back pocket.

And don’t stress all the more because the care facility you found isn’t “perfect.” If you’re at the end of your rope, you may have to place her in a community that wouldn’t be your first choice, take time to breathe, and then move her later again if needed.


Family responsibilities may have made you the caregiver for another family member. But those same responsibilities can cause “caregiver burnout ” along the gray mile, as well. There is help available, however. You just have to know where to ask for it.

Tom Text


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