As I wrote recently, caregiving can be a demanding and stressful experience, either personally or professionally. Sometimes I don’t think that caregivers get enough credit for what they do. “Caregiver fatigue” is a serious condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. I know it sounds rotten, but I’ve seen it happen and have a great deal of sympathy for these caregivers who suffer from it.
First diagnosed in the 1950’s by nurses who worked directly with trauma victims, the disorder now extends to any caregiver who experiences emotional, mental, or physical exhaustion – sometimes referred to as “burnout.” The most important way to prevent caretaker fatigue is simply to recognize that it can occur and be on the lookout for red flags or warning signs that tend to creep into the caregiver’s personal and professional lives (often without even realizing it.) Symptoms include:
- Anxiety and stress
- Bitterness toward friends or family who do not help “as much as they could”
- Change in appetite or sleep habits
- Decrease in energy
- Decrease in experiencing pleasure
- Decrease in productivity
- Failing health – frequent headaches, back pain, muscle aches
- Feeling depressed, helpless, hopeless, or trapped
- Impaired motor skills (slow or clumsy)
- Inability to concentrate or focus
- Isolation from others
- Lowered immunity (readily susceptible to colds, illness)
- New feelings of incompetence and self-doubt
- Over-reaction to small disturbances
- Pervasive negative attitude
- Procrastination (more than usual)
- Profound exhaustion, tiredness (not relieved by sleep)
- Skipping work or coming in late
- Taking out frustrations on others
- Using food, drugs or alcohol to cope
A caregiver experiencing burnout feels empty and beyond the capacity to provide care. It’s such a rotten feeling. I remember talking with one wife who was experiencing caregiver fatigue as a result of providing relief less long-term care for her husband who had ALS. She described feeling horrible, but not being able to muster the ability concentrate, drinking too much wine, and feelings of helplessness.
For many caretakers, the emotional fatigue is greater than the physical exhaustion. With caretaker fatigue, feelings of anger and resentment at the care recipient can occur followed by feelings of guilt. Caretaker fatigue has a variety of causes including being over-extended and receiving little to no appreciation or recognition. The Silver Lining is that caregivers can take steps to keep or regain balance in their lives including:
- Adopt healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits
- Be gentle with yourself – avoid self-destructive behavior
- Communicate your feelings
- Create time away from caretaking
- Keep a sense of humor
- Know that you are not alone and seek support
- Nourish your creative side and outside interests
- Practice relaxation techniques
- Set Boundaries. Don’t be too afraid, proud, or shy to ask for help.
- Find the Silver Lining!
If you are a caretaker, or have a caretaker, please be mindful of “caretaker fatigue” and take measures to keep the symptoms at bay or when they do arise, seek assistance.
- Book: American Cancer Society Complete Guide to Family Caregiving Edited by Julia A. Bucher, Peter S. Houts and Terri Ades.: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/bookstore/caregiving-books
- The Online Magazine: Today’s Caregiver: For, About, and By Caregivers: http://www.caregiver.com/magazine/2006/sept_oct/fighting_caregiver_fatigue.htm
- Center for Family Caregivers: www.caregiving.com
- National Alliance for Caregiving: www.caregiving.org
- National Cancer Institute http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/caring-for-the-caregiver/page1