The role of caregiver is not usually one we plan for. It’s often thrust upon us unexpectedly, either with a loved one’s sudden diagnosis, or a change in their capacity or mobility. We’re often untrained, and unpaid, in this new role and try to cope as best as we know how. The challenges may seem endless, and we find ourselves trying to juggle jobs, childcare and other family obligations. Our normal routines are blown to bits and the voice in our head becomes deafening: “How do I keep on top of everything?” “I’ll never be able to do enough.” “I can’t keep doing this!” We might start to wonder – who’s caring for the caregiver to prevent burnout?
Caregiver burnout is the mental, emotional and physical exhaustion resulting from the responsibilities of caring for another individual over a prolonged period of time. This can lead to the caregiver neglecting our own health and well-being. There is often a lack of support for caregivers – physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. Reach out to friends and family; hold a family meeting and brainstorm so tasks and responsibilities can be delegated. Others are picking up on our stress and will likely be relieved to learn how they can help out. Find ways of rallying around each other and the person we are caring for.
We may be caregiving for someone with a disability, mental illness, chronic illness (diabetes, renal failure), terminal illness or for a senior having difficulties with daily living. Healthcare professionals can also experience burnout; the resulting phenomenon is termed Compassion Fatigue, where the caregiver becomes desensitized and less compassionate towards those we care for.
Seeking the support of a professional therapist – caring for the caregiver – helps the caregiver to prevent burnout by guarding against feelings of isolation and powerlessness. Therapy can also support the caregiver when facing difficult care decisions, balancing our own needs with those of our loved one. Therapeutic goals might be to strengthen and build emotional resilience by processing feelings and identifying patterns, learning to set healthy boundaries, strengthen problem-solving skills, and improve communication with our loved ones. Let’s give ourselves permission to express feelings – to grieve, worry and be fearful – at a time when we may feel an expectation to “be strong” or stoic. It’s important to have realistic expectations (aka lowering our standards; so no, the dishes don’t need to be washed right now) and to define our boundaries (aka self-care: set aside 30 minutes at a specific time each day to do something just for us, like reading a magazine, doing that yoga practice or watching a tv show that makes us laugh).
1) Dr. Jacqueline Brunshaw, National Post, Compassion Fatigue and Caregiver Burnout, June 2012; https://nationalpost.com/health/giving-too-much-compassion-fatigue-a-real-risk-for-caregivers
2) Nira Rittenberg, O.T. Baycrest Health Sciences Centre, Sept. 2018; https://www.caregiverexchange.ca/Spotlight/408/What_a_well-known_therapist_has_learned_from_family_caregivers