Caregivers are family members, friends, or paid helpers who regularly provide help to others in need. Often, caregivers support an ill spouse or partner, a sick or disabled child, a family member with a mental health diagnosis, or an aging relative. When family or friends provide support rather than paid caregivers, it is called "informal or unpaid care." According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the one-year value of this unpaid caregiver activity was estimated as $450 million in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Approximately 25% of U.S. adults reported providing care or assistance to a person with a long-term illness or disability in the past 30 days, according to 2009 data from CDC's state-based Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.
When informal caregivers don't receive the help they need or overextend themselves physically and financially, they may experience caregiver burnout. Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion.
Caregivers often become so focused on helping their loved ones that they don't recognize a decline in their own well-being. For this reason, caregivers and their loved ones should be on the lookout for signs of burnout and take action to mitigate stress and find balance.
Risk Factors and Signs
Prolonged stress can harm a caregiver's mental and physical health, causing symptoms of depression and anxiety and increasing their chances of developing medical problems.
Risk factors for caregiver stress to watch out for include:
If you or a loved one are a caregiver and these risk factors look familiar, check for the following signs of caregiver stress.
Mental Health Tips
To avoid compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout, caregivers need to take time to recharge and take care of their physical and mental health needs.
Maintain a regular daily routine and healthy lifestyle. Having a daily routine provides a comforting structure and predictability.
Improve sleep. Getting enough sleep boosts the immune system, improves well-being, and increases a caregiver's capacity for patience.
Focus on what you can control and limit "what if" thinking. Focusing on things you can't control will lead to anxiety and frustration. Let those things manage themselves and focus your energy on doing the things you can control. If your mind constantly jumps to negative "what if" scenarios, try changing them to positive "what ifs." For example, instead of thinking, "what if I can't find a solution to this problem" try saying, "what if I can find a solution to this problem."
Lighten up on yourself. First, notice when you are being hard on yourself. Next, use positive talk to speak to yourself as a friend.
Plan for your loved one's care in case you get sick. Stop worrying about what would happen if you were to get sick. Instead, come up with a backup care plan so you can focus on recovering. Compile a list of family, friends, and neighbors who could help relieve some of your caretaking responsibilities if you get sick. Then include all the essential information a temporary caregiver would need in your plan.
Take mini-breaks throughout the day.
Set alerts on your phone to remind you to relax your jaw, neck, and shoulders consciously.
Drink some water and have a healthy snack.
Watch a funny show or video clip.
Call a good friend.
Move and stretch your body to loosen tense muscles and get your blood flowing.
Play a game on your smartphone or online.
Read a chapter in a book.
Follow a short guided meditation.
Remember, you are not alone. Call family and friends to stay connected or connect with other caregivers who are in a similar situation to yours.
Use humor to relieve tension. Give yourself permission to laugh because humor eases tension and relieves stress.
Set realistic goals. Break large tasks into smaller, manageable goals and then prioritize them. It's also important to say no to requests that are not essential and are draining.
If you are a caregiver who also works outside the home, you are not alone. There may be a time when the demands of both caregiving and working become overwhelming. At these times, consider looking into the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to see if you are eligible for some paid time off.
To be a successful caregiver, a caregiver must first take care of themselves. To give, a caregiver must have physical, emotional, and mental health reserves. Take care of your body and mind, take mini breaks throughout each day, connect with family and friends, and find a support group. Don't give in to negative thinking and guilt. Instead, focus on positive thinking and being kind to yourself.