Many caregivers say they need more emotional support. Providing care for another person can be a rewarding but exhausting task, whether they are a friend, family member, or patient. It’s common for caregivers to feel guilty if they spend any time on themselves instead of their ill or elderly loved one — but if you don’t allow yourself space to confront and express your own needs, there’s a good chance you’ll experience burnout. Burned out caregivers aren’t getting the assistance they need, and might find themselves trying to bite off more than they can chew; as a result, this can lead to fatigue, anxiety, and depression. But there are ways to cope: Here, our experts share tips to prevent caregiving burnout.
Speak your truth.
Sometimes things don’t feel real until we say them aloud, which is why expert Jennifer L. FitzPatrick advises telling someone you trust what you’re going through. “Be honest with your emotions, particularly guilt.” A refrain she hears from caregivers is, “I wouldn’t feel this way if I were a good daughter or a good spouse.” Just having someone tell you there’s nothing to feel guilty about works wonders.
Honor your grief.
Caregivers often feel “anticipatory grief,” or mourning a loss before it’s happened, says expert Cheryl E. Woodson, MD, who cared for her mother with dementia. To find comfort, she urges honoring who they were. “My mom loved to dance, so I put on music and danced in front of her,” recalls Dr. Woodson. “She didn’t know who I was, but she smiled, and that lifted my spirits.” Small gestures like painting her mother’s nails also helped. “Now, every time I look at my hands, I think of her.”
Accept this emotion.
A hidden feeling caregivers experience is resentment. “When someone lashes out, it’s normal to be angry,” says expert Loren Gelberg-Goff. She suggests saying, “I understand how frustrated you are that you can’t do the things you used to.” This connects you to compassion rather than anger. “Then tell yourself, ‘I’m choosing to spend my time this way.’” These simple words help you feel more in control.
You’ve heard, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” But when it comes to caring for yourself, Gelberg-Goff says: “Anything worth doing is even worth doing poorly — i.e., just a few minutes of self-care, even if it’s not exactly what you imagined, is powerful.” She recalls how one woman caring for her husband wanted to take a walk, but she felt stuck. “I suggested she walk back and forth in the house, and she realized she didn’t have to take long walks to do something for herself — small steps build momentum.”
“Rather than focus on what you don’t want, ask yourself, ‘What’s my desired outcome?’” urges Gelberg-Goff. “Instead of saying, ‘I don’t want my mother to call me 20 times a day from the other room,’ say to yourself, ‘I will answer after I breathe and feel calm.’ Women are conditioned to put one foot in front of the other, but interrupting that autopilot lets you find balance.”
Consider local support.
No matter how capable you are, leaning on others is invaluable, says Dr. Woodson. “For example, many houses of worship have caregiving ministries that offer support.” Also, the Aging Life Care Association (AgingLifeCare.org), provides eldercare consultants. “I’ve seen how freeing it is for caregivers to connect with people who have experienced the same thing they are.”
Meet our expert panel
- Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, author of Cruising Through Caregiving and Reimagining Customer Service in Healthcare, is a gerontology instructor.
- Cheryl E. Woodson, MD, practiced geriatrics while navigating her mother’s Alzheimer’s. In To Survive Caregiving, she offers her 5 Keys to Caregiver Survival ©.
- Loren Gelberg-Goff is a psychotherapist best known for creating the powerful program for caregivers “Take Back Your Life.” More at LorenGelbergGoff.com.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.