Family medical troubles can come as an unpleasant shock, keeping us on edge with concern in the early uncertainty of tests and treatments. However, for those closest to the sick or injured person, the challenges are often just beginning. When chronic care is needed, it’s not just the patient’s lifestyle that changes but that of those around them. When the intense demands that these family caregivers face don’t let up, caregiver burnout becomes a growing likelihood.  

What does caregiver burnout look like?  

Burned-out caregivers often feel drained and withdrawn, with less time and energy for the things they enjoy. In a 2020 report, the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) found that 61% of family caregivers hold down a job while giving care, and 45% reported struggling with the financial impact of caregiving. Caregivers’ health and moods suffer when they are burned out, and the experience of caregiving takes on a negative edge.  

Recent statistics hint at a growing burden and risk of burnout for family caregivers. The NAC states that the number of family caregivers in the United States went up by 9.5 million between 2015 and 2020. In this growing group, 4% more reported “fair to poor” health, while 7% fewer reported “excellent or very good” health. Roughly one in four said that they struggled to manage their own health, and one in four also said that caregiving has taken a toll on their health. The NAC highlights different types of caregiving situations such as “High Intensity”, “Feeling Alone”, “No Choice”, etc. What they all have in common is a struggle with something beyond their control and often a feeling of being trapped. 

The NAC also found that 50% of family caregivers care for a parent or parent-in law. Many among these caregivers support their own children as well as an aging parent. These people are part of the “Sandwich Generation”, a group which has been growing due to the challenges that have come with COVID-19. One report by New York Life found that the average monthly cost of care for an elderly relative in 2021 is $1,000, and this compounds with other costs – especially the emotional costs. Two in ten caregivers reported feeling alone, which can be a serious obstacle to maintaining personal well-being and in succeeding in caring for another.  

Self-care, emotional support, and dealing with burnout 

Family caregiving is often so grueling because it strains some of our closest bonds despite our best efforts. One of the Alzheimer’s Association’s ten symptoms of caregiver stress is anger or resentment toward the care recipient. This is one example of why it’s so important to have an active support system. Having at least one person you can confide in can act like a pressure release valve. A caregiver who experiences anger and has the space to talk about it may realize that they’re not really angry at their loved one, but at circumstances that seem overwhelming.  

If you lack a close support system, consider searching out support groups. These are usually created by people who are dealing with similar situations and are looking for common ground. People in caregiver support groups may reflect many different circumstances, but they all come together to relate over their challenges and celebrate their wins. Another strategy to defuse those internal battles is to keep a journal. This can give you a space to begin digesting the emotions that come up. Healthy outlets like these are important for avoiding burnout, but when it just can’t be avoided, they become even more important.  

When burnout does occur, take it as an invitation to relax and reassess. After all, you can only be effective as a caregiver when you’re stable and in balance. The first step in practicing self-care is to recognize your limits. Respite care services can give you a break from the physical requirements of providing care, and there are other resources available to help you find balance emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  

It’s not always easy to choose self-care if you feel strongly about your caring responsibilities, but once you make the choice you don’t have to go it alone.