Coping with Caregiver Stress and Burnout

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Most caregivers are relatives of aging or disabled family members. They almost always work without compensation, apart from gaining the satisfaction of knowing that they are making a difference in the life of someone they love. About 53 million Americans function as a family caregiver. Roughly 21% of family caregivers report that their own health is poor.

Caregiving is inherently stressful. That stress has been compounded by Covid-19 and its seemingly endless variants. The little free time available to caregivers was initially curtailed by quarantines and later by caution. Fear of bringing home a virus has induced caregivers to avoid beaches, theaters, malls, and other crowded but relaxing destinations.

The widespread availability of vaccinations has enhanced recreational opportunities, but breakthrough infections can sideline caretakers until it is safe to be in the presence of their older relatives. Avoiding the risk of infection is still a priority for caregivers. Finding a way to de-stress under those circumstances might be challenging, but it is nevertheless important to recuperate from meeting the challenges of caregiving.

Caregiver Stress and Burnout

Caregivers who live with parents, grandparents, or other aging family members are “on call” 24 hours a day. Studies have established that the responsibility of caregiving causes stress that can lead to physical and mental deterioration, including depression, exhaustion, insomnia, chronic health conditions, and loss of self-esteem.

Financial difficulties contribute to caregiver stress. Almost 20% of family caregivers have quit their jobs so they can devote more time to caregiving. Another 40% have reduced their work hours. Caregivers who are employed outside the home often experience conflicts with their employers because caregiving emergencies require them to leave work early, to come in late, or to miss days at work.

Stress also leads to caregiver burnout, a syndrome characterized by:

  • emotional exhaustion (“a feeling of overload, of no longer being able to continue, of being emotionally drained when facing the caregiving situation and the care-recipient”),
  • depersonalization (“the detached response in the relationship to the person being cared for”), and
  • a diminished sense of achievement (no longer finding satisfaction, fulfillment, or meaning in caring for a family member).

Neither the caregiver nor the recipient of care is well served by a caregiver who is overwhelmed by stress. Caregivers cannot care for their loved ones unless they also take care of themselves.

Coping Strategies for Caregiver Stress and Burnout

Addressing the caregiver’s physical health should be a priority. It doesn’t pay to put off visits to the doctor. Neglecting stomach aches and headaches won’t make them go away. Even if they are not symptoms of a more serious condition, a doctor or a physical therapist may be able to treat aches and pains that make it difficult to get through the day. Medication for sleep disturbances may help a caregiver obtain restful sleep without impairing the ability to wake up in response to a relative’s needs.

Eating well contributes to good health. Healthy snacks, including fruit, nuts, and nutrition bars, are a good substitute for potato chips when a caregiver must wait to prepare a proper meal.

Taking naps during the day might not be possible, but scheduling ten-minute blocks of time for meditation, reading, or taking a short walk in the neighborhood can have a calming effect. Finding other family members who can provide regular care for an hour or two will increase the range of restful activities a caregiver can pursue, from playing tennis to getting a massage.

A financial planner suggests that caregivers prepare a budget based on their expenses during the last year. If income is insufficient to meet expenses, investigate the availability of government assistance programs. 

A family member who meets disability standards may be entitled to Supplemental Security Income. Some states provide tax credits to caregivers that can result in tax refunds. State agencies that help people meet the challenges of aging might be able to offer assistance with the expense of food, shelter, healthcare, and transportation. The Eldercare Locator is a good starting place for finding local resources.

Family caregivers who are struggling to balance employment with caregiving responsibilities might also think about looking for a better job. In recent months, new job growth has accelerated beyond the ability of the labor market to provide employees to fill those jobs. Many workers are quitting their former jobs to find positions with higher pay and better benefits.

Benefits that are particularly helpful to caregivers include flexible scheduling, work-at-home options, and unpaid leave to deal with family issues. There has rarely been a better time for caregivers to reexamine their employment options. Searching for work that minimizes interference with caregiving may be the best stress reliever of all.

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