As our parents and spouses age most of us will, at some point, have to take part in providing some sort of care for them. Whether it is assisting with the activities of daily living, taking responsibility for medical care, managing finances, etc., many adults will take part in this.

November is designated as National Caregiver Appreciation Month, a time to recognize the people who freely give their time and resources in the service of others. At any given time in the United States, it is estimated that around 50 million people are providing care for an aging family member, friend, or a loved one with a chronic disease or disability. Many of these caregivers, especially those providing care for a spouse or significant other, are single-handedly managing the spectrum of caregiving, from transportation to medication management, with no medical background or training.

Speaking as a person who has been a caregiver for a terminally ill parent, this is fulfilling and you are ensuring that the person you love is being adequately cared for. However, this task is also highly physically, emotionally, and mentally stressful, and can be profoundly frustrating, even for those with medical training.

Caregiver burnout is a very real risk for those who provide care for others. Ironically, caregivers are often unable to see the signs of caregiver stress in themselves. Caregivers, who are often laser focused on ensuring those they love have what they need, are unaware of the indicators of emotional fatigue. Oftentimes, these signs are first noticed by a medical provider, another family member, or a friend. The following signs, although they may be subtle, should be heeded:

  • Feelings of depression and isolation.
  • A sense of ongoing and constant fatigue.
  • Becoming angry in unwarranted circumstances. 
  • Decreasing interest in work.
  • Withdrawal from social contacts.
  • Increase in use of stimulants and alcohol.
  • Change in eating and sleeping patterns.
  • Feelings of helplessness.

While recognizing signs of caregiver burnout is important, taking steps to combat burnout is equally vital to maintaining health and the ability to continue caring for a loved one. The following are some tips to combat caregiver stress:

  • Consult with professionals to explore burnout issues. Being burned out can affect a person both physically and emotionally. Knowing how it can take its toll on you personally and finding some ways to combat that is important.
  • Attend a support group to receive feedback and coping strategies.
  • Take a lesson from others who have lived through it. Consider reading “Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout in America.” This memoir shows how all-consuming caregiving can be, how difficult it is to find support, and how the social and literary narratives that have long locked women into providing emotional labor also keep them in unpaid caregiving roles.
  • Vary the focus of caregiving responsibilities if possible (rotate responsibilities with family members).
  • Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet. If you are in need of some quick, easy, yet fairly healthy recipes, check out “The Family Caregiver’s Cookbook: Easy-Fix Recipes for Busy Family Caregivers” by Harriet Hodgson. She knows all too well the need for keeping a well-balanced diet with the limited time she had caring for her disabled spouse. 
  • Accept help when it is offered. While many people are unable to perform as primary caregivers, they can take on other vital duties such as laundry, meal preparation, grocery shopping, or other errands.
  • Stay involved in hobbies. Be sure to check out the Library’s event calendar to sign up for one of our many winter offerings.
  • Get some downtime. It is important to rest your mind and body. Having a block of time where you have no deadlines, responsibilities, or tasks to complete is beneficial to your overall well-being.

The role caregivers play in their loved one’s health and comfort is a significant one, a responsibility that can take a toll on the caregiver’s health. With support from others and self-care, click here for some self-care tips, caregiving is more manageable and enjoyable for everyone involved. At the same time, it is imperative to know one’s limits when providing care.

Consulting with a trusted medical professional is always recommended to gauge this properly, and when care can no longer be managed at home on a full-time basis, caregivers should be aware of resources in their area such as respite care, adult day centers, and senior living communities.