Understand and Prevent Caregiver Syndrome, Stress and Burnout

Author: Debbie Humphrey

Having employed many caregivers over the last decade, I can attest to the reality of caregiver burnout, caregiver stress, and caregiver syndrome. It is real. I’ve felt it, and I’ve witnessed the toll it’s taken on the compassionate souls who so freely give of their time and energy to provide quality in-home care for seniors and the disabled, even as rewarding as care-giving can be.

“Caregiver syndrome or caregiver stress is a condition that strongly manifests exhaustion, anger, rage, or guilt resulting from unrelieved caring for a chronically ill patient. Although it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the term is often used by many healthcare professionals,” states a Wikipedia source.

It is estimated that nearly 66 million individuals in America are caregivers to sick or elderly spouses, parents, or other adult loved ones, with many of them caring for their own children and families at the same time. It makes perfect sense that caregivers can become overwhelmed and experience higher levels of stress to the point of caregiver burnout.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. Many caregivers also feel guilty if they spend time on themselves rather than on their ill or elderly loved ones. Caregivers who are "burned out" may experience fatigue, stress, anxiety and depression.”

Whether it’s characterized as Caregiver Syndrome or Caregiver Burnout, the symptoms mirror each other. Fatigue, depression, anger, anxiety and insomnia tend to surface when caregivers spend more time helping others, and less time taking care of themselves.

That said, for most caregivers I know, taking care of “self” becomes a catch 22, of sorts.  Family caregivers and those who provide in-home care for seniors often feel guilty about focusing attention on “self” instead of the loved ones in their charge. As mentioned above, this guilt can manifest in drastic mood swings, anger, resentment and depression.

Even the best caregivers are not immune to the stress, syndrome or burnout. It commonly happens because of physical, mental and emotional neglect of self. Caregivers are so busy tending to the many needs of their loved ones, they forget to pay attention to their own needs.

In the case of caregivers to Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients, it is also implied that caregivers may actually begin to present with symptoms that mimic those for whom they are caring, like progressive memory loss. That is kind of scary!

The Cleveland Clinic lists various factors that can lead to caregiver burnout:

  • Role confusion: Many people are confused when thrust into the role of caregiver. It can be difficult for a person to separate her role as caregiver from her role as spouse, lover, child, friend or another close relationship.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Many caregivers expect their involvement to have a positive effect on the health and happiness of the patient. This may be unrealistic for patients suffering from a progressive disease, such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.
  • Lack of control: Many caregivers become frustrated by a lack of money, resources and skills to effectively plan, manage and organize their loved one's care.
  • Unreasonable demands: Some caregivers place unreasonable burdens upon themselves, in part because they see providing care as their exclusive responsibility. Some family members such as siblings, adult children or the patient himself/herself may place unreasonable demands on the caregiver. They also may disregard their own responsibilities and place burdens on the person identified as primary caregiver.
  • Other factors: Many caregivers cannot recognize when they are suffering burnout and eventually get to the point where they cannot function effectively. They may even become sick themselves.

Moreover, the symptoms of caregiver burnout are similar to the symptoms of stress and depression. They include:

  • Withdrawal from friends, family and other loved ones
  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Feeling blue, irritable, hopeless and helpless
  • Changes in appetite, weight or both
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Getting sick more often
  • Feelings of wanting to hurt yourself or the person for whom you are caring
  • Emotional and physical exhaustion
  • Irritability

The Cleveland Clinic also suggests 12 steps to help prevent caregiver burnout:

  • Find someone you trust -- such as a friend, co-worker, or neighbor -- to talk to about your feelings and frustrations.
  • Set realistic goals, accept that you may need help with care-giving, and turn to others for help with some tasks. Local organizations or places of worship may provide support groups (either in person or online) for caregivers or family members of those suffering from diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s. These organizations may also provide respite care to allow the caregiver to have time away from the patient.
  • Take advantage of respite care services. Respite care provides a temporary break for caregivers. This can range from a few hours of in-home care to a short stay in a nursing home or assisted living facility.
  • Be realistic about your loved one's disease, especially if it is a progressive disease such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Acknowledge that there may come a time when the patient requires nursing services or assisted living outside the family home.
  • Don't forget about yourself because you're too busy caring for someone else. Set aside time for yourself, even if it's just an hour or two. Remember, taking care of yourself is not a luxury. It is an absolute necessity for caregivers.
  • Talk to a professional. Most therapists, social workers and clergy members are trained to counsel individuals dealing with a wide range of physical and emotional issues.
  • Know your limits and be honest with yourself about your personal situation. Recognize and accept your potential for caregiver burnout.
  • Educate yourself. The more you know about the illness, the more effective you will be in caring for the person with the illness.
  • Develop new tools for coping. Remember to lighten up and accentuate the positive. Use humor to help deal with everyday stresses.
  • Stay healthy by eating right and getting plenty of exercise and sleep.
  • Accept your feelings. Having negative feelings -- such as frustration or anger -- about your responsibilities or the person for whom you are caring is normal. It does not mean you are a bad person or a bad caregiver.
  • Join a caregiver support group. Sharing your feelings and experiences with others in the same situation can help you manage stress, locate helpful resources, and reduce feelings of frustration and isolation.

As Mom always said, “If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else!”

At Home Helpers®, I do my best to prevent caregiver stress and burnout of those in my employ by carefully matching the caregiver to the client and closely monitoring schedules. I am keenly aware of the physical, mental and emotional stress care-giving entails, and I strive to do all I can to protect my caregivers’ health.

As challenging as the work can be, if you have a servant’s heart and are interested in becoming a caregiver, please don’t hesitate to apply online. Perhaps, someone you know and love could benefit from the assistance of a caregiver, in which case I am available to schedule a FREE Consultation to assess their individual needs and find just the right person to help!

We, at Home Helpers® Clearwater, are honored to have received the Home Care Pulse – Best of Home Care® Provider of Choice Award for 2017, 2018 & 2019. We proudly serve male and female seniors in Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor, Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Holiday, New Port Richey, Trinity, Port Richey, Hudson and surrounding areas. Home Helpers®…we are Making Life Easier℠  (727) 240-3059


Cleveland Clinic




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