On alert for caregiver burnout

Being a caregiver is a wonderful, daunting and exhausting job. It can be especially overwhelming if you have many other responsibilities.

When I was involved in the care of my father and my grandparents, I learned what it takes to stay physically and emotionally healthy while in this role. Although many of us want to care for a loved one in need and try to do everything we can, if we don’t tend to our own needs, then we are in danger of burning out and becoming unavailable for the person we love.

If you are caring for someone with a long-term illness or disability, be alert for signs of caregiver burnout in yourself and in anyone else helping you. Symptoms of caregiver burnout can include the following:

• Irritability

• Withdrawal from family and friends

• Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness

• Changes in appetite and/or weight

• Sleeping too much or too little

• Getting sick more frequently than usual

• Wanting to hurt yourself or the person you are caring for

• Physical exhaustion

• Feeling emotionally spent

Consider asking a friend or family member to watch for these symptoms in you and inform you if they start to appear.

Avoiding caregiver burnout means taking time for healthy meals, sleep, exercise and fun like a movie or listening to music. This means you will probably need to ask for help from friends, family or co-workers. It may be difficult for you to share the caregiving burden, but there are ways that might make it easier for you.

Try to not be frustrated if someone who offers to assist you does not perform a task exactly as you would. You may need to let it be done differently. If something must be done a certain way, and the person who is offering help is not able to do it, ask her to take on another task like picking up prescriptions instead of changing bandages. Even asking someone to do something for you, like running errands or walking your dog, can help the person you are caring for by freeing up your time for direct caregiving tasks.

Sometimes, even with friends and family doing all they can, it is not enough to avoid burnout. Caregiving is a significant burden and you may feel too preoccupied to ask for outside help, but it is important to seek assistance when you need it. Your loved one may not be comfortable with an outside caregiver – at least not initially. Have a conversation with him about what assistance he would be comfortable with, inside his home or elsewhere, before that outside help is needed. Be aware that if the person has a progressive condition, it may be difficult for him to accept the idea of getting worse and he may resist your efforts. Have a conversation with his health care provider if you need guidance in this area.

You can find information on elder care, veterans care, assisted living, hospice, home care, disability benefits, respite, long-distance care and family care at www.usa.gov/Citizen/ Topics/Health/ caregivers.shtml.

Talk with your own health care provider about the stresses involved in being a caregiver, especially if you notice any of the symptoms listed above or other physical and emotional ramifications from the demands in your life. Your own health and well-being need to remain a priority so you are able to meet the needs of those who are depending on you.

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your comments and column suggestions to drhideg@ghc.org.

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