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Mental Health

Expert Advice: How Do I Handle Caregiver Burnout?

Ditch the guilt and learn how to take better care of yourself.

One in four women looks after a loved one, and many will admit they are exhausted. But it’s time to ditch the guilt: Everyone with responsibilities struggles from time to time, and you’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed or overburdened. To help, our experts provide six easy ways to combat caregiver burnout, boost your energy, and learn how to take better care of yourself.

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Meet our expert panel

  • Laura N. Gitlin, PhD is sociologist and dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University and executive director or The AgeWell Collaboratory.
  • Karen Warner Schueler, author of The Sudden Caregiver, became a caregiver when her late husband was diagnosed out of the blue with stage IV cancer.
  • Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, author of Cruising through Caregiving, is the founder of Jenerations Health Education, Inc., and is a gerontology instructor at Johns Hopkins University’s Certificate on Aging program.

Remember you’re in good company

When we’re caring for a family member, it’s easy to feel guilty for not doing even more. “I hear this all the time from women who tell me, ‘I’m smart, so why can’t I handle this? What’s wrong with me?’” says expert Laura N. Gitlin, PhD. “I always tell them, it’s not you: Everyone feels overwhelmed. Most people are relieved to learn that they’re not alone.” This realization will help you recognize how much you do — the first step to embracing self-care.

Lean on these feelings

Though stressful, caregiving is also a source of joy, says expert Karen Warner Schueler, explaining this duality is known as the “caregiver’s paradox.” Focusing on positive emotions is shown to restore a caregiver’s energy. “When you feel depleted, find one thing to be grateful for,” she encourages. “Savor small moments of connection — 89 percent of caregivers say their experience has brought them closer to their loved one. And acknowledge your accomplishments, because you’re on a true hero’s journey.”

Take time for you

“When people tell me they feel guilty for taking a break, I ask, ‘What exactly are you guilty of?’ You’ve done nothing wrong,” declares expert Jennifer FitzPatrick. In fact, just taking a fifteen minute breather gives caregivers an hour’s worth of energy back, adds Schueler. “Give yourself permission to take care of you.”

Gather your team

“Take 90 seconds to jot down everything stressing you out, including chores,” urges FitzPatrick. Then write down everyone who cares about your loved one. “If you’re looking after your dad, for example, you might ask his longtime barber to drop by the house to cut his hair, so you don’t have to get him dressed — people want to help.”

Set loving boundaries

To avoid burnout, we have to learn to say no. “My grandmother was so loving, but when she got sick, she complained a lot,” says FitzPatrick, recalling how her relative wanted family to sleep over every night. “One morning, my father called me to say he’d take her to the doctor and bring her meals, but he just couldn’t sleep over any longer.” Being clear about what you’re willing to do is an act of love.

Show yourself kindness

There are going to be bumps on our caregiving journey, says Schueler, who still regrets the last argument she had with her late husband. “You’re not going to be your best self all the time and you have to grant yourself grace.”

Part of this means realizing just how universal your experience is, adds Gitlin, who finds comfort in this quote: “There are four kinds of people in the world: those who are currently caregivers, those who have been caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.” In short, always be kind to yourself.

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