Recognizing Caregiver Fatigue

The next time you spot someone trying to exit the bank through the entrance door, have a little patience.  She is probably not crazy, just a distracted caregiver.  There are currently over fifty million Americans caring for elderly, disabled, or chronically ill loved ones, and that number continues to grow.  Most of us cross paths with caregivers every day, whether we know it or not.

The person struggling to exit the bank through the entrance door could be a mom who left work early to straighten out her aging parents’ finances, and is now rushing off to pick the kids up after soccer practice.  The older gentleman lingering too long at the green light could be trying to decide if he should do one more errand for his ailing wife, who he left at home and whose dementia causes her to get anxious when he’s not there.

Caregivers are everywhere, and yet we rarely sympathize with them or even take notice.  Because they don’t have a diagnosis or use a cane, we tend to assume that they are doing fine.  Yet the demands of caring for others can lead to significant health problems.  Caregivers are likely to forego adequate sleep, medical attention, and socialization, among other basic needs.

Caregivers can experience burn out, or ‘Caregiver Fatigue,’ due to the constant demands on their time and energy.  Caregiver Fatigue can encompass a range of emotions, from depression and anxiety, to anger and guilt.  Spouses and adult children often find themselves exhausted and sleep deprived from worry and multiple obligations.  Approximately 70% of caregivers experience depression.  These emotional problems, if untreated, can lead to further health problems like heart disease, higher blood pressure, and a weakened immune system.

Maria Benoit, Director of Mission and Pastoral Care at Youville Assisted Living Residences, has counseled many caregivers in nursing homes, hospitals and assisted living residences.  “As a Chaplain, I find that no matter what the circumstances, caregivers’ feelings are universal.  At one time or another, they experience sadness, grief, guilt and loneliness.  When counseling caregivers I explain these feelings are very normal.

 “The wife of one of my patients was overcome with anger at what was happening to her husband, who had early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Although she understood his disease on an intellectual level, she was not ready to accept his condition and the affect it had on their lives. She was exhausted by her new role as caregiver, and grieving the loss of her husband.

“As I worked with her over many months she began to accept what was happening to her husband, and adjust to their new lifestyle,” adds Chaplain Maria.

“More importantly, we talked about her stress and fatigue, and what she could do to take care of her own physical and emotional wellbeing. She learned that caring for herself, and reducing her own stress level and unresolved anger made their visits more enjoyable.”

The emotional and physical demands of care giving challenge even the most resilient people. The good news is that we are becoming increasingly aware of Caregiver Fatigue, and ready to seek help for ourselves or caregivers who we know.  Here are a few strategies that have helped others manage their caregiver stress:

  • Accept help. Be prepared with a list of ways that others can help you, and let the helper choose what he or she would like to do.
  • Focus on what you are able to provide. Don't give in to guilt. Feeling guilty is normal, but understand that no one is a "perfect" caregiver. Do the best you can at any given time.
  • Join a support group. A support group can be a great source for encouragement and advice from others in similar situations. It can also be a good place to make new friends.
  • Seek social support. Make an effort to stay emotionally connected with family and friends. Set aside time each week for socializing, even if it's just a walk with a friend.
  • Set personal health goals. For example, set a goal to find time to be physically active on most days of the week, or set a goal for getting a good night's sleep, or to meditate or pray. It's also crucial to eat a healthy diet.
  • Be objective. There are times when a setting other than home is best for your loved one and for you. Consider the benefits of a nursing home, assisted living residence or adult day center.  

by Joanne Parsons, President and CEO