Caregiver Fatigue


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.

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  1. Victoria says

    Hollye, This is a fantastic post. I'll bet it's something that a lot of people don't think of. Have you seen the movie Amour? It was just up for best foreign film and the actress was up for best actress. It's heavy, but very good. I think it speaks to this post very well. I think probably feel that they have to be completely selfless when being a caregiver and feel guilty for wanting something for themselves.

  2. says

    I am the caregiver for my husband who has lost mobility, doesn't drive, and rarely goes out, with the exception of doctor visits. He is sharp mentally and able to get around the home on his crutches, but oftentimes I feel emotionally and physically exhausted, and admittedly resentful of our situation.
    I feel that the symptoms of caregiver fatigue and depression you list here are spot on. I especially like your list of tips for keeping your own health and well-being in check. Balance in your life is essential.

    • says

      Thank you so much for sharing, Carolee. Being a caregiver is indeed physically and emotionally exhausting. I have even more appreciation and admiration for you. Feeling resentful is so very normal, especially when your life is on a holding pattern beholden to someone else (which, by the way, doesn't diminish your love of the person!).
      I hope-hope-hope that you will take very good care of yourself.
      All my best, always!