Caregiver Burnout: Staying Healthy While Helping Others
Dec 17, 2018 Cedars-Sinai Staff
Taking care of a sick loved one can tax more than your schedule and your finances—the stress of the total commitment can harm your health.
“As a caregiver, it’s annoying to be told to take care of yourself."
Nearly one-third of American adults provides some type of care for an aging or ill family member.
Many are at risk for caregiver burnout: exhaustion, anxiety, and depression caused by overwhelming responsibilities and emotions that come with helping a sick loved one.
Family caregivers are likely to lose sleep, abandon their hobbies, and neglect their own health: About two-thirds of them say they skip their own doctor's appointments.
To fight caregiver burnout, Dr. Sonja Rosen, head of the Cedars-Sinai Geriatrics Program, says she encourages caregivers to exercise, eat healthy, and find ways to take a break.
"If you have resources, hire professional help so you can get a break," she says. "You shouldn't feel guilty. To be an effective caregiver, you really have to take care of yourself too."
We asked caregivers to share what they've learned and how they manage stress to best take care of themselves and their loved ones.
"Nearly one-third of American adults provides some type of care for an aging or ill family member."
Leeta McCullah's husband Lance was diagnosed with ALS in 2012. Like most couples who experience diagnosis of a disabling, incurable disease, their dynamic as a couple changed.
To cope with the burden of Lance's diagnosis, Leeta sought professional counseling.
"I always encourage people to get some counseling to get them through the beginning," she says. "It helped me to accept the fact that he has ALS, which means I have it also, in a sense, and I'm having to deal with that loss."
Lance supports Leeta in seeking balance: "We've seen so many caregivers who are on 24/7, and they look more beat up than the patient. It's so mentally draining. Caregivers need a break."
- Block out weekly "me time" to regenerate
- Rely on friends and family
- Keep to your schedule as much as you can
"In total adversity, life can become richer and more meaningful."
"Embrace the suck"
Jonathan Tavss' wife Elise was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2015, when the couple's children were 2 and 8. The family refers to Elise's 3 years of painful and debilitating treatment as "the suck."
"It threw our entire world out of whack," says Jonathan.
But in the blur of doctors' appointments and the anguish of watching his wife suffer, Jonathan threw himself into his new role as caregiver and found that his life had more purpose.
"In total adversity, life can become richer and more meaningful," he says. "Things that used to depress you don't matter anymore. When you recognize that your lives have changed, you can evaluate where you are and prioritize what you can do."
Elise finished her treatment in October. Jonathan says the acceptance he practiced throughout his wife's cancer made him a better husband, father, and person.
- Maintain a sense of humor, even when it seems impossible
- Accept that you don't have all the answers and give yourself a break
- Try to find relief in the routines you can keep, such as work
Maintain your routine or develop a new one
JK van der Gaag, clinical social work supervisor at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, leads a team of professional social workers who counsel cancer patients and their family members who are grappling with diagnosis and treatment.
He recognizes that a prescription of "self-care" doesn't sit well with most family caregivers.
"As a caregiver, it's annoying to be told to take care of yourself. Often spouses insist that taking care of their loved one IS taking care of themselves," JK says. "When your old routines as a family are not possible, consider a new structure to provide some normalcy. Develop new methods of self-care."
Even small coping mechanisms, like deep belly breathing or grounding yourself using things you find pleasant can help reset your brain when you overload, he says.