What is caregiver burnout?

Caregiver burnoutCaregiver burnout takes place when the caregiver is taken beyond his or her physical, mental and emotional limits. While the average caregiver will press on in spite, and even because of burnout, this is actually counterproductive for both the caregiver and the person who is being given care. This is illustrated by the fact that often burnout is characterized by a shift in attitude; they go from bright-eyed volunteers who believe they are making a difference to despondent, unmotivated, jaded, bitter cynics. As such, the caregiver may start to neglect and even mistreat the person that they are caring, as well as themselves and others.

According to the official website of the ALS Association, there are three different stages to caregiver burnout. The first stage is frustration; the caregiver is frustrated that their efforts are not reflected on the patient’s condition. These expectations are unrealistic, especially in the case of progressively degenerating diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. However, it isn’t the caregiver’s responsibility to actually cure the patient, just to make sure that the patient is comfortable and well provided for.

The second stage is isolation; there is a lot of confusion regarding what the role of caregiver entails and what its limitations are. Both the caregiver and their immediate family may be at a loss as to where the caregiver ends and the spouse/sibling/child begins. The caregiver may actually feel that they are less than. On the other hand, the rest of the family may either think that the patient is the sole responsibility of the caregiver, or that they are more useful by simply staying out of the caregiver’s business. As a result, the caregiver neither gets nor asks for help. They are effectively left to their own devices.

The final stage is despair; the caregiver becomes nihilistic and misanthropic, they lose interest not only in their patients, but in themselves and everyone else as well. Moreover, they fail to take solace in common social and human endeavors. This phase is characterized by loss of hope, purpose and meaning, and wishing that the whole thing was over with; i.e., suicidal ideation as means of escaping.

The best way to prevent burnout is to be aware of it. Many caregivers ignore the symptoms –which include depression, low self-esteem, interpersonal issues, hostility, irritability, substance abuse, irregular sleeping patterns, poor diet, stress, and anxiety-, or dismiss them, figuring that they ‘come with the territory.’ Once caregiver burnout has been recognized and detected, it may be prevented and coped with through personal care habits (a nutritious diet, enough rest, exercise) and stress-reducing techniques (breathing exercises, yoga, massage, meditation). Additionally, the caregiver must build a support network where they can share their feelings as well as their workload. If family members are unable/unwilling to do this, the caregiver may consider the possibility of seeking professional counseling. 

Related Read: How to relieve caregiver stress during the holidays?