How to Be a Caregiver and Not Get Burned Out
November 3, 2014 | Home and Family
By Lisa Wirthman
An aging population that’s living longer is giving rise to a growing number of caregivers, many of whom struggle to balance their caregiver responsibilities with personal and family needs. According to Northwestern Mutual’s Long-Term Caregiving Study, nearly one in five Americans have provided or currently provide long-term care for another individual.
Being a caregiver is difficult work, no matter how much you care about the person. The study found that about 60 percent of caregivers experienced increased stress levels, and 42 percent found the work to be physically demanding and draining. A third of respondents also said their caregiving duties resulted in less time spent with family and friends.
Nearly 80 percent of long-term care in the United States is provided by families and friends who provide unpaid care to a loved one, reports the Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA). Many of those caregivers also are caring for their own children or juggling a full-time job.
Many Americans, however, misunderstand the risks and financial implications of a long-term care event, according to the Northwestern Mutual study.
Some 43 percent of U.S. adults surveyed believe their long-term care expenses will be covered by Medicaid/Medicare, health insurance or disability insurance. But often that’s not the case. And nearly one quarter said they’re unsure about the possible implications of long-term care.
While it may seem as though they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, caregivers should know there are resources are available to help them, said Kathleen Kelly, executive director of the FCA’s National Center on Caregiving in San Francisco. The agency’s website offers a number of links to help caregivers get advice and find local resources.
And it’s not just about seeking financial help, Kelly noted. “The part that falls by the wayside in the conversation about cost is the real or perceived difference in quality of life for a caregiver. People have to find ways in which to have to have personal time.”
Caregivers also need to know it’s okay to ask for help, the FCA reported. Just as passengers on an airplane are advised to put on their oxygen masks before helping someone else, caregivers likewise should take care of their own needs first.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Studies show caregiving can compromise a person’s health. About 60 percent of caregivers are clinically depressed. And caregivers of all ages have reported being sleep deprived, having poor eating habits, not exercising and not resting or seeing a doctor when they are ill, according to the FCA. What’s more, caregivers are at a higher risk of chronic illness than non-caregivers.
To help combat caregiver burnout and stay healthy, caregivers should get regular sleep, get scheduled checkups and exercise. And let go of guilt: It’s not selfish for caregivers to think about their own needs and feelings, the FCA advised.
It’s also important for caregivers to keep social connections intact to help prevent both isolation and depression. Learning as much as possible about the illness can also help caregivers understand what’s happening now and what to expect in the future. “The more you know, the more you will be able to plan,” the FCA noted.
Other ways caregivers can stay emotionally healthy, according to the website Helpguide.org:
1. Take time to relax daily: Finding ways to release day-to-day stress, no matter what else is going on in your life, can help you keep perspective. Learn to recognize when you’re feeling overwhelmed; this is when you should step back and take a break.
2. Keep a journal: Writing down your thoughts and feelings can provide a safe outlet to release negative emotions.
3. Talk with someone: Identify a neutral friend or family member to speak to regularly. Seeking out a different point of view can help you make sense of your situation and your feelings.
4. Feed your spirit: Whether you pray, meditate or practice tai chi, do something that makes you feel part of something greater.
5. Watch out for signs of depression and anxiety: If you feel depressed or anxious, seek professional help.
To help ease some of the workload, caregivers also should avail themselves of community resources such as Meals on Wheels and day care programs. The more resources caregivers use, the less they have to do themselves, the FCA said
Given the many challenges of caregiving—mental, physical and financial—it’s a good idea to plan ahead to help ease some of those challenges for your potential caregivers further down the line. Making plans now for the possibility of long-term care is a gift not only to yourself but also to the family and friends who love you most.
Additional Information from Northwestern Mutual:
Lisa Wirthman writes about business, sustainability, public policy, and women’s issues. Her work has been published in The Atlantic.com, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Investor’s Business Daily, the Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.