Dr. David discusses: caregiver burnout

by David Clay McIntyre

My dad cannot be helped, he has no quality of life, and it would be better for everyone involved if he would just quit fighting and die already!”

“Maybe if I take all of her sleeping pills at once, I won’t have to wake up! This situation is more than I can bear!”

This discussion will focus on an insidious and debilitating condition known as caregiver burnout. These negative internal feelings and thoughts, typically contemplated in a moment of individual internal reflection, are much more common than many may realize. Caregiver burnout is an unspoken reality, an emotionally draining cancer, and a highly effective debilitative curse bestowed upon individuals carrying a powerful burden for the health and welfare of the most important people in their lives.

There are more examples of diseases, family situations, and varied circumstances with a strong affinity to produce caregiver burnout than can be easily listed in this entire newspaper. However, I will provide a common example of this type of situation and allow you to compare this situation with your own individual circumstances. I will also highlight the key symptoms, consequences, and strategies to combat caregiver burnout for those of you who may realize your precise situation and current state is being described.

One situation where caregiver burnout is extremely common is found in families affected by a loved one diagnosed with dementia. The caregiver of a patient diagnosed with dementia may be a spouse, significant other, child, or possibly a sibling. There is no cure for dementia, it progresses in a well-documented and fairly predictable fashion, and eventually results in the need for complete care by a caregiver until the loved one passes away. The natural progression of this type of disease process typically results in the caregiver slowly taking on more and more responsibilities as the disease progresses. Oftentimes the caregiver becomes overwhelmed at a slow enough pace that the symptoms of burnout are not realized until it has depressed the caregiver’s mental, physical, and emotional state to such a degree that he or she begins struggling to function effectively in their daily lives. This may ultimately result in resentment of the individual by the caregiver and harboring of negative thoughts and emotions toward this person against the caregiver’s better judgment, moral beliefs, emotional obligations, or personal desires.

As defined by the Cleveland Clinic (2019), “Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that may be accompanied by a change in attitude -- from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned.”

Symptoms of caregiver burnout may include, but are not limited to the following:

• 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

It is essential for each of us to ensure adequate maintenance of our own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, especially when functioning in a caregivers role. If a person is not functioning as they normally would in any of these areas, it is difficult, if not impossible, to provide adequate care to someone else without experiencing deterioration of their own degree of functionality.

There are several things you should keep in mind should burnout attempt to rear its ugly head in your specific situation:

• Make time for yourself, this is not an option for you; it is a requirement and absolute necessity!

• You cannot care for others if you are not healthy first!

• Talk about the way you feel with someone you trust, or even a professional therapist. (We have previously discussed the stigma surrounding mental health treatment; there is absolutely no shame in seeking help when you need it!)

• Educate yourself regarding your loved one’s disease process, knowledge is power!

• Do not set yourself up for failure! Possess realistic expectations regarding your family’s situation.

• Realize that you are only one person, and you may truly not be capable of providing the care they need!

• You are not a bad person if you cannot meet ALL of your loved one’s needs on your own!

• The degree of care you are capable of providing does not indicate the degree of your love for them, that is an unfair assumption on your part!

• You are not alone in this! There are others just like yourself who are more than willing to support you, guide you, and help you function in a caregiver’s role!

There are many resources available for caregivers experiencing caregiver burnout, or see their own struggles when reading this article. For example, the Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County is one such resource for families affected by dementia. Among a myriad of other services, this foundation connects caregivers with support groups to help them navigate the difficulties associated with providing care to a loved one with dementia. Also, The Family Care Alliance: National Center of Caregiving is a national foundation focused on connecting caregivers with various resources to help them through this difficult season of their lives. The Family Caregiver Alliance website provides a wealth of information regarding locally available resources to help caregivers and their families function at the highest level possible by connecting them with support groups, financial assistance programs, caregiving classes, respite services, legal resources, wellness programs, research, and public awareness programs. I have provided the web addresses for both the Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County and The Family Care Alliance below. It is always important to educate yourself during difficult times in your life. Knowledge is power.

Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County: http://www.alzalliance.org

The Family Caregiver Alliance: https://www.caregiver.org