Updated August 3, 2022 – A job can be stressful, but at least at the end of the day, your hours are over and you can go home. When you’re caring for an aging parent or loved one, however, you’re offering around-the-clock care. You don’t get nights off or weekends, or even holidays. This can lead to immense pressure and stress, which often leads to caregiver burnout.
Lack of sleep, irritability, and increased anxiety can signal oncoming burnout for caregivers—those who provide critical support to a loved one with a chronic illness or disability. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, 9.5 million Americans fit this category as of 2020. For some, caregiving has taken such an emotional and physical toll, that new or worsening symptoms don’t trigger warnings about their own wellbeing.Fortune.com
What causes caregiver burnout? The main contributing factors are:
- Exhaustion, yet being unable to sleep
- New health problems or the worsening of preexisting health problems
- Mood changes, including irritability, depression, and/or anxiety
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that while some aspects of caregiving can be rewarding, caregivers may be at increased risk for negative health consequences such as depression and difficulty maintaining healthy lifestyles. These effects may be exacerbated by stresses at work.mycouriertribune.com
If you think you’re on the brink of caregiver burnout or you’re already there, then this article is for you. Ahead, we’ll talk statistics, burnout causes, and the health risks that can come from not taking care of yourself.
Caregiver Burnout Statistics
Being at home all the time taking care of an aging parent (or spouse, etc). can be a very isolating experience. You can easily forget that there are millions of men and women around the world just like who you who commit to the same daily duties and responsibilities.
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance or FCA, as of 2015, in the United States, 43.5 million unpaid caregivers had taken on that duty in at least the most recent year surveyed. Up to 34.2 million US caregivers were taking care of an adult over 50 years of age for at least a year, and unpaid, too. Roughly 15.7 million US caregivers oversee a dementia or Alzheimer’s patient per that same 2015 data.
Most caregivers are female – in fact, about 75 percent of caregivers are female. On an average week, they administer care for 21.9 hours. Males administer care for about 17.4 hours as per data from 2009 as published by the FCA.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many caregivers – up to 53 percent – report that “a decline in their health compromises their ability to provide care.” The CDC mentions that these symptoms are common of caregiver burnout:
- Reduced immune health
- Poorer physical condition
- Greater likelihood of taking psychoactive medications
- More risk of anxiety and depression
- Higher chance of a premature death
Financial hardship can also go along with caregiving at home. The CDC quotes 2009 data that found that, in that year, 27 percent of caregivers said their financial hardship was at a level of “moderate” to “high.”
Causes Of Caregiver Burnout
What is it about being a caregiver that can lead to burnout? While it’s different for every caregiver, as we mentioned at the beginning of this article, being exhausted and having new or worsening health problems (for the senior or the caregiver) can contribute, as can depression and anxiety.
Eventually, I realized something on a deeply personal level and I’d been advising clients for years: Caring for others requires that you first take care of yourself. Otherwise, physical and mental exhaustion can so easily lead to guilt, anger, confusion, resentment and worse.Yvonne Ferguson Hardin, For The Inquirer
Additionally, there are other factors that might induce extra stress and pressure in your day-to-day life:
Little If Any Privacy
If your elderly parent can’t even get to the doctor’s, then you may have nursing staff, nutritionists, and even physical therapists over to the house. Other family members, like your siblings, come by to check on your parents, too.
This parade of people leaves you craving privacy. Even on those days when it’s just you and your elderly parent, you always have to be close to them and vice-versa, which kills any chances of privacy.
Little Alone Time
Each day, the only time you get to yourself is the hour or two before you pass out after you put your parent to bed for the night. Even when you’re sleeping, your loved one may awaken you if they need something. This might mean that you have almost no time to yourself, and it gets grating after a while.
Trying To Meet Too Many Needs
Your doctor says one thing about your senior parent’s care and your overbearing brother says another. Your elderly parent also has their own opinions about their care. You can feel pulled in so many different directions that it’s only a matter of time before you break.
Too Much Work
The list of caregiving tasks for your senior parent literally never ends. If you manage to complete everything you sought to do today, then tomorrow you’ll have to wake up and do much of it all over again.
The tasks you don’t finish today continue to pile up and become overwhelming because they seem so insurmountable.
You’re not on anybody’s payroll, so there is no written job description about your role as a caregiver for your senior parent. This can make your life hard. You may have started off just watching your parent a few times a week, and now it’s every day. Your role has also evolved to feeding your elderly parent, dressing them, and bathing them. It’s a lot, and it’s also way more than you anticipated.
Other Needs To Meet
Your senior parent is not the only person in your life you must care for. You may have a spouse and even children. They still demand your full attention, and you want to give them that attention, but it’s so, so hard. You’re drained.
No Time For Hobbies and Interests
Remember when you used to be able to spend hours knitting or reading books? You could go to the gym, see your friends, and binge-watch your favorite TV shows. Now, you have time for none of that.
You spend each and every day with your elderly parent, but you’re still painfully aware of how finite time is and how each day is one less that your parent will be with you. Watching their physical and/or mental decline is heartbreaking and just adds to the emotional pressure already mounting on you.
Caregiver Health Risks
You vaguely remember what life was like before you started taking care of your senior parent. You were a busy but vibrant person. You had the energy to tackle life’s daily tasks and time to enjoy yourself when you were done for the day.
That person seems like someone else now, not you. These days, you wake up groggy and feeling unrested. Well, that is, if you even slept at all. You drag through the days, doing what’s required of you and then collapsing in exhaustion when your parent is asleep. Even if you did have time for hobbies, the interest isn’t there, nor is the energy. You’re also in a lot of pain.
These health problems are not to be ignored, especially in view of the following caregiver health risks.
Depression And Anxiety
You may feel depressed for many reasons as a full-time unpaid caregiver. You hate watching your senior parent’s health worsen. You mourn for the life you once led. You may have financial troubles that keep you awake at night.
The World Health Organization or WHO says that 264 million people (and counting) have depression worldwide. Being depressed can worsen your physical health, not to mention it leaves you at risk of death by suicide if the depression gets bad enough.
Anxiety also often accompanies your daily life as a caregiver. You were never an anxious person before, but now you feel constantly nervous and worried, especially for your senior parent. When accompanied by depression, there’s the risk you may die prematurely from both mental health afflictions, says this 2012 article from CBS News.
The article cites a study from the British Medical Journal, which you can read here . The study involved 68,000 participants, all adults 35 or older. The participants had engaged in other related studies for 10 years.
By reviewing the participant data, the researchers concluded that the participants with mental health conditions were at risk of an earlier death more often than those without mental health conditions, as they had less stress in their lives.
You’re still relatively young, yet the pain that riddles you each day makes it extremely hard to get out of bed. This pain could have developed from all the physical running around you have to do when taking care of your elderly parent day in and day out. Also, admittedly, you haven’t been taking good care of yourself for a while now. You can’t even remember the last time you saw a doctor for yourself and not your senior parent.
Untreated physical pain can easily turn chronic, leading to distressing conditions that you could have to contend with for the rest of your life. Some chronic conditions can even shorten your lifespan.
You’re more tired than you’ve ever been since taking on the job of caretaker, yet when your head hits the pillow at night, it can take you hours to fall asleep. On some nights, sleep just doesn’t come. This period of sleeplessness can stretch on for days and even weeks.
Insomnia can cause several dangerous complications if not addressed. Your blood pressure is more likely to increase, which could eventually cause heart disease. Also, your depression can worsen from your sleeplessness.
When you get behind the wheel of a car, you have a greater chance of causing an accident, which would be especially unfortunate if your elderly parent is in the car with you. You may also find that you’re not caring for your senior parent as well as you once did because you’re sleepwalking through life.
Sadly, it becomes very simple for many overworked and overstressed caregivers to turn to substances like drugs and alcohol. It may start off innocently enough, like an alcoholic drink at the end of the day to take the edge off. Then you become reliant on the alcohol.
You may start abusing sleep medication to catch some ZZZ’s or even overdoing it on the pain pills to get some relief from your bodily soreness.
Data from the CDC says that 67,367 US residents fatally overdosed on drugs in 2018. The numbers weren’t as bad as in 2017, but that’s still a lot of unnecessary deaths. You don’t want yours to be among them.
Caregiver Stress Intervention – How Do You Avoid Caregiver Burnout?
The above health complications can all spell out your death, and a premature one at that. If you’re not around to care for your elderly parent, then who will? That’s why it’s so important to take care of yourself, so you can be a better caretaker for them.
To avoid caregiver burnout, try the following tips:
- Let others step in: Whether it’s a trusted neighbor, a sibling, or even your spouse, when someone who’s equipped for the job asks to take over, step back and let them. You need this time to recoup.
- Take breaks: If you were at work, you wouldn’t be at it all day with no breaks in between. That’s just not healthy. Make sure you take breaks when caring for your senior parent as well.
- Carve out time for yourself: Whether you wake up a half-hour earlier or stay up a little later, make some time that’s just for you each day.
- Take advantage of care services: Respite care isn’t only for seniors. We have a great post on respite care for caregivers, which is exactly what it sounds like. A professional will step in and take care of living activities, meal prep, housekeeping, and the senior’s hygiene so you don’t have to for a little while. A senior companion might be helpful. as well.
Being responsible for your senior parent’s care is the most difficult role you’ve ever taken on in life.
As an unpaid caretaker with no breaks and certainly no time off, it’s easy to get burned out.
Remember that you must take care of yourself to keep caring for your senior. Whether you let a sibling, friend, volunteer, or a paid helper step up to the plate, or you use respite care for caregivers, try to find a way that you don’t have to shoulder this burden alone.