Disabled person eating outside at a restaurant with the help of a caregiver.

10 tips: How unpaid caregivers can beat burnout

November is National Family Caregiver Month sponsored by the Caregiver Action Network.

With a growing aging population, many adult children and other loved ones step up to provide care. It seems idyllic for seniors to reside with relatives instead of unfamiliar staff in a retirement community, and for those with illnesses or disabilities to be cared for by people who know and love them, but family caregivers take on a significant amount of work in addition to regular jobs and family responsibilities, which can lead to extreme burnout.

The Caregiver Action Network, formerly the National Family Caregivers Association, reports that more than 43 million Americans care for a loved one who is aging or lives with a chronic illness or disability—and the scope of their work is significant. Gallup reports that the average unpaid caregiver spends a full 13 days per month on tasks like shopping, food preparation, housekeeping, laundry, transportation, and giving medication; 6 days on feeding, dressing, grooming, and bathing; and 13 hours researching care services or information on disability or disease, coordinating healthcare appointments, and managing financial matters.

Although this around-the-clock caregiver’s level of dedication is admirable, the time and effort required can take a toll—especially if a caregiver has other responsibilities and challenges. As the average age of an unpaid caregiver is 49.2 years old, many are still in full-time jobs and/or juggling parental responsibilities. AARP, a CARF International Advisory Council (IAC) member, found that 60% of caregivers in the U.S. also work other jobs, nearly half have struggled to balance caregiving with work, and 8% report their career growth is affected by caregiving responsibilities.

Caregiving stress results in a range of physical and emotional symptoms. In one American Psychological Association (also a CARF IAC member) study comparing caregivers with non-caregivers, caregivers displayed a 23% higher level of stress hormones and a 15% lower level of antibody responses. Persons caring for family members with dementia were more likely to have weakened immune systems and greater odds of developing chronic illness. And caregivers providing 36-plus hours of care per week were more likely to display depression or anxiety. Many caregivers may be unlikely to seek treatment for their own symptoms or acknowledge their burnout or need for help due to feelings of guilt and a sense of duty to the care of their loved one.

“Caregivers are taken for granted, and they are invisible in the system,” said Georgetown University Professor of Public Policy Judy Feder. “It’s bad for them, it’s bad for care recipients, and it’s bad for the system.”

What can be done to address your threat of burnout if you’re a caregiver? In recognition of National Family Caregiver Month in November, some experts weighed in with these tips:

  1. Acknowledge your challenging role. Admitting your job is not always easy doesn’t imply a lack of devotion to your loved one; rather, it’s the first step in finding solutions. “Daughters, spouses, partners, and friends frequently do not perceive themselves as a caregiver—and as a result, do not recognize the need to seek support or don’t know the ‘language’ that can open doors to valuable resources,” says Jed Johnson, CARF’s managing director of Aging Services.
  2. Don’t expect perfection. You may not be able to handle every element of your caregiving job on your own, or you may need to go part-time. You’re human; you may make mistakes; choose the wrong options; and get tired, frustrated, or snarky. Forgive yourself and move forward. “It’s normal to feel guilty sometimes, but understand that no one is a perfect caregiver,” notes staff of the Mayo Clinic. “Believe you are doing the best you can and making the best decisions you can at any given time.”
  3. Accept help. Don’t be too proud to accept help offered by friends or other family members. Keep a list of tasks others could complete for you— perhaps running errands, bringing a meal, or providing transportation for your loved one.
  4. Set realistic goals. Establish boundaries by saying no to actions and events you know to cause too much stress, such as taking your loved one on a faraway trip or hosting a major family gathering on their behalf.
  5. Stay organized. Eliminate hurry and indecision by keeping lists and calendars and breaking each day down into manageable routines.
  6. Become connected. Learn about caregiver resources in your community. Support groups made up of like-minded individuals may allow you to vent your frustrations while sharing joys and sorrows. You may also identify services such as transportation, meal delivery, or housekeeping that are geared toward caregivers.
  7. Don’t isolate yourself. Spending every day focusing on your loved one without other socialization can make you feel alone. Schedule time with other family and friends who can support you in your caregiving goals, and pursue activities you find relaxing and enjoyable.
  8. Advocate for your own health. Control your stress levels and maintain your wellness by following a solid sleep routine, staying hydrated, having regular physicals, and seeking counseling as needed. An impartial third party can help you understand and cope with your feelings.
  9. Look into respite care. Respite care comes in several forms and may be covered by insurance. Options include in-home aides, adult care centers, or short-term care programs. “Respite care provides relief for the caregiver and helps to reduce burden and stress,” advises Johnson, who recommends checking out the ARCH National Respite Network and Resource Center. “It can be for a few hours a day, a few days a week, or even a few weeks a year.”
  10. Take advantage of industry resources. Optimize the help and resources available through caregiver advocacy organizations. Johnson recommends AARP; the Family Caregiver Alliance/National Center on Caregiving; the Caregiver Action Network; and the National Alliance for Caregiving.

Caring for a loved one can be a full-time commitment. Recognizing the physical, mental, and emotional challenges of being an unpaid caregiver is crucial in keeping yourself from becoming overwhelmed. Asking for help does not mean you are any less committed to your loved one; it will only make you a better caregiver to arm yourself with resources in order to provide the best care possible.

CARF’s provider search can help you find an accredited program in your area. Visit our Resources page to explore consumer guides and articles on caring and advocating for the health of your loved ones.