Nearly 10,000 baby boomers reach the age of 65 every single day. As the number of baby boomers retiring begins to increase, so will the demand for caregivers. In fact, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, nearly half of older adults will require outside support by the time they reach 85 years old. Traditionally, caregivers assist older adults in daily activities such as medication management, eating, bathing, getting dressed, and running errands. Caregivers can be unpaid family members or professionals who are hired by the individual or the family to assist a loved one. While caregiving is a rewarding profession, it can also be emotionally and physically demanding. Over time, it’s not uncommon for caregivers to experience stress, which can ultimately lead to caregiver burnout.
What is caregiver burnout?
Caregiver burnout occurs as a reaction to the emotional and physical strain of caring for another person. It’s not uncommon for caregivers to report high levels of stress compared to those who are not caregivers. While caregiver stress can show up in different ways, some warning signs are common among caregivers, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Caregiver burnout symptoms:
- Feeling overwhelmed and worried
- Gaining or losing weight
- Becoming irritated or angry
- Losing interest in activities
- Experiencing headaches or body aches
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Abusing alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications
- Feeling sad
- Lack of concentration
When these warning signs are ignored, it can lead to dangerous mistakes, such as making errors in managing medications or slower responses in emergencies. When caregiver stress goes unacknowledged for long periods, it can also lead to long-term health concerns.
Long-term effects of caregiving on health
Caregivers can experience a wide range of emotions in a single week, let alone in a single day. Caregiving can reinforce feelings of helpfulness, love, and commitment and provoke feelings of worry and exhaustion at the same time. When left unidentified, chronic stress releases stress hormones in the body, which can have serious long-term effects on your health. Here are some of the most common ways stress can affect the body:
Depression and anxiety. Long-term stress can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, which can increase your risk of developing other conditions like heart disease and stroke.
Weakened immune system. When stress is left unacknowledged, it can cause additional stress on your immune system. The immune system works to fight off illnesses and diseases. Weakened immune systems can increase your risk of developing a cold or flu and reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.
Obesity. Chronic stress can produce betatrophin, which blocks a protein that breaks down body fat. Long-term release of betatrophin can lead to weight gain or obesity, which can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Increased risk for chronic diseases. Ongoing stress can also increase the risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis.
Problems with short-term memory. Those who experience high levels of stress can also develop problems with their short-term memory, making it difficult to care for another person.
Self-care for caregivers
While stress is common for caregivers, leaving it unaddressed can cause long-term problems with overall health and wellness. Our bodies have a natural way of combatting stress, which is regulated by our nervous system. However, if you’re experiencing high levels of stress, you may need to activate your body’s natural response through a variety of activities. Here are a few ways to help address stress and prevent feelings of burnout:
- Practice self-compassion. It’s not uncommon for caregivers to feel like they’re not doing enough for their loved ones. This can lead to feelings of guilt, especially when caregivers take time to care for themselves. However, practicing self-care allows a caregiver to be present and focused when caring for a loved one.
- Practice breathing exercises. Meditation and relaxation techniques have been proven to be effective ways to process and redirect feelings of stress. Taking five minutes at the beginning or end of the day to breathe deeply or practice meditation will help you relax your body. Here are a few exercises to get started.
- Eat well. Forgetting to eat or not getting enough quality sleep can contribute to caregiver stress and burnout. The simplest thing caregivers can do for themselves is to eat a balanced diet and create a relaxing nighttime routine. To prevent inflammation in the body, avoid foods that are processed and high in refined sugars. Focus on eating foods high in nutrients, protein, and fiber.
- Connect with others. Caregiving can be isolating, especially for those caring for a spouse or family member. Reconnecting with others and prioritizing socialization can help combat feelings of isolation and depression. You might even consider scheduling social activities, like talking to a friend on the phone, into your weekly calendar.
- Reduce stress. It’s important to be able to recognize warning signs that might occur when you begin to feel stressed. These signs might include disruptive sleeping patterns, forgetfulness, or feelings of loneliness. Once you understand what is at the root of your stress, you can begin to take action.
- Ask for help. It can be extremely difficult for caregivers to accept help. But, accepting someone’s offer to help can allow you to manage your stress and conserve your energy. Make a mental list of ways that others could help you if they offer, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
- Start to exercise. Regular daily exercise can help reduce your risk of caregiving-related injuries, illness, depression, and anxiety. A mind-body practice such as yoga, tai chi, or meditation can help reduce stress. Just 30 minutes of exercise each day can promote better sleep, help manage your sleep, and reduce physical and mental tension.
Services for caregivers
In addition to prioritizing self-care, there are many resources available to caregivers who may be feeling overwhelmed or burnt out. Many communities offer meal delivery and other non-medical services like housekeeping, cooking, and making changes to your home, like installing ramps or modifying bathrooms. Respite care, which is when a substitute comes to relieve a caregiver, can help free up time for full-time caregivers who may need to run errands or schedule appointments. The National Eldercare Locator can help you identify caregiving services in your area.
Our integrated care team at Inspīr Carnegie Hill is here to help support caregivers. We know only too well about the toll caregiving can have on a family member, especially if it is needed 24 hours. We understand the need for help and are available to discuss if our residence may be a more suitable option for the future.