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There is an ‘I’ in Caregiver: 5 Tips to Avoid Burnout

We all have heard of coaches exhorting their players to work together by saying “there is no ‘I’ in team.” Let me share what I’ve learned from another coach ata business coaching seminar recently.  The coach was very clear in stating that unless you make something a priority, unless you consistently work on it, you will not be successful.  This, from a coach who had neglected herself for years, but with the realization that her health and her body needed to be a priority, she was able to not only shed over fifty pounds, but also found her hours working on the business were more productive.  The hours spent in physically working her body gave her a much clearer mental grasp of her business priorities and the energy to execute. She had learned that taking care of herself was a huge part of taking care of her business.

In our personal and professional experiences, those caregivers who take better care of themselves, whether that is a physical workout, a book club, a long walk or a conversation with a dear friend, also take better care of their loved ones who are their care receivers.  In effect, they put the ‘I’ back in caregiver.

So starting out with first things first: Who should attend to the caregivers? Clearly, part of the answer is the caregivers themselves.  There are external supports that can be as basic as just giving a break to what some have characterized as “the 36 hour day” (book of the same name, authored by Nancy Mace and Dr. Peter Rabins) that many caregivers live.  But this taking a break for the caregiver has become so central to care planning that it has gained a name.  Residential and other facilities that care for older loved ones call it “respite care.”  It is not just taking care of the older loved one; it is giving the caregiver to that older loved one a break from the day to day stressors and responsibilities of active caregiving.

Too many caregivers feel guilty if they are not there for mom or dad or for a failing spouse 24/7.  We encourage all caregivers to watch for their own burnout symptoms as a caregiver can only be as good for the loved ones who depend on them as they are for themselves.  Stress is inevitable; burnout is self-inflicted.

Do you see the signs?  Are you missing hours or days of work?  Are you not able to track and pay all your bills…are you getting late notices?  Are you not exercising enough? Instead, are you consuming a lot of unhealthy junk…sweets, fast foods, alcohol?  Are you having nightmares or disturbing dreams?  Are you feeling lethargic or maybe even depressed?  Are you angered by minor issues, or are you impatient with your family or friends? Have you simply “let yourself go?”

If you can answer any of these questions with a “yes,” you need to know that you would benefit from a break.  There are resources and support systems that can help.  Family, friends, volunteers, and care managers are all helpful. Getting your own support system or taking time out doesn’t mean you are unsuccessful, not being a good daughter or son, or losing a battle, but it does mean you are getting through a very difficult and emotionally-charged time in your life.

In virtually every community there are resources available to provide respite care.  These will be independent or continual care facilities who offer day care for older adults while the adult caregiver/child is at work.  Some offer care for periods that may range from days to weeks or even a month or more.  If you are a caregiver, check into one of these local resources as a help in getting you through your week or maybe just a test case to see what difference this kind of help can make for both you as the caregiver and your older loved one.

To address or prevent burnout, consider:

  1. Becoming educated about your loved one’s medical condition in order to be as effective as you can be.
  2. Recognizing that you are not superman or superwoman; set some limits on what you and others can expect from you.
  3. Not beating yourself up about feeling angry, afraid or even resentful; instead find ways to vent.Feelings are just feelings, no matter how strong they may be.  Defusing their energy defuses their power and helps you to be more balanced.
  4. Talking to someone, especially to a therapist or counselor or clergy member…even trusted friends as a principal way to vent.
  5. Lifting smart. As a caregiver, be smart about not hurting your back when lifting, pushing and pulling; keep yourself in shape and use an assistive belt around your care receiver if your physician recommends it.

Appreciate that caregiving is a job, and that all jobs allow one to “punch out” from work as well as take vacations and breaks.  Give yourself permission to take a respite from caregiving. Illinois has an agency that offers support, the Illinois Agency on Aging. Their mission is “to serve and advocate for older Illinoisans and their caregivers.”  Put yourself back on your list of “things” to do.

Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago.  She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.


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