Understanding Caregiving Burnout

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Caring for a loved one can be stressful, and that stress can have a considerable impact on a caregiver’s personal health and well-being. Even so, some caregivers hesitate to bring up the strain they're under for fear they'll make their loved one feel guilty or look like they aren't strong enough or together enough to handle their responsibilities.

But talking about burnout is an important part of protecting yourself against it. Here are some talking points you can use to discuss burnout with the loved one you're caring for as well as with other friends and relatives.

Common Signs of Caregiving Burnout
Verywell / Cindy Chung

Understanding Caregiving Burnout 

Caregiving burnout is when a caregiver becomes physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. It’s the kind of tired you can’t fix with a single good night’s sleep, and it’s often the result of long-term, unchecked stress. 

Why Caregiving Burnout Happens

Caregivers can focus so much on their loved one that they don’t (or can’t) take time to care for themselves. Without healthy food, exercise, or time to recharge, the stress of caregiving starts to chip away at your mental and physical health. 

According to a report by the AARP, more than a third of caregivers say caregiving is highly stressful, and one in five say that caregiving has made their own health worse.

The proportions are even higher among those caring for close relatives like partners or parents.

The sources of the stress could be any number of things, including not knowing what their role is or should be, trying to take on too much on their own, feeling like they don’t have any control over what’s happening, or feeling like they aren’t getting enough support from their friends or relatives.    

What Caregiving Burnout Looks Like

Burnout looks different in different people, but there are some common signs that many with burnout experience. A caregiver with burnout might feel: 

  • Extremely tired, even when they sleep well 
  • Easily flustered or frustrated
  • Quick to anger 
  • Forgetful or foggy 
  • Uninterested in engaging with people or activities they used to enjoy
  • Anxious or depressed
  • Hopeless or helpless 

At its extreme, burnout can also leave caregivers indifferent or hostile to the person they care for or put them at risk for hurting themselves or others.

How to Explain Caregiving Burnout to Others 

Telling someone you’re burnt out can be tricky for caregivers, especially when you’re talking to the person you’re caring for. Here are some tips to help the conversation go more smoothly.

  • Be honest: If you’re worried you’re burnt out, be honest about it with yourself and others. The sooner you acknowledge it and ask for support, the sooner you can start to recover.
  • Be specific: When you’re talking to someone about your burnout, try to present it in terms of what, specifically, you’re feeling (ex. overwhelmed or exhausted) and what you suspect is the driving force behind it (ex. needing more time to recharge).
  • Avoid blame: Even if you think a specific individual is the root of your stress, the reality might be more complex. Try not to point fingers or assign guilt—including (and especially) to yourself. You can do this by framing things in terms of what you feel or need, and avoid bringing up things the person you're talking to might have done in the past to contribute to your burnout. All of that is behind you. Now focus on the future.
  • Stick to solvable problems: The person you’re talking to might want to help. So, give them concrete ways they can. Ask yourself what stressful things could be taken off your plate or set aside for a while. Could someone else drive your loved one to doctor’s appointments so you can have a little time to yourself? What about arranging a housekeeping service or a steady rotation of home-cooked meals? Not every challenge you’re facing will have a simple solution, but some will. Sometimes you just have to ask. 

    Tips for Avoiding Caregiving Burnout 

    Caregiving burnout isn’t inevitable. Getting organized, prioritizing your own health, and asking for help early can all help prevent or mitigate burnout. 

    Find Ways to Be More Efficient With Routine Tasks

    Friends and relatives might be reaching out to you to find out how your loved one is doing. Instead of touching base with each person individually, utilize apps (like CaringBridge), group texts, or social media platforms to send out updates to everyone at once. 

    Learn to Delegate, Outsource, or Postpone What You Can

    You don’t have to do everything yourself. In fact, you shouldn’t. When you write out your to-do list or look at your calendar, think about what tasks you really need to do yourself—and what you can let go of, pass on, or hire out. 

    Asking for support is not failure, and accepting help doesn’t mean you can’t hack it. This actually isn’t about you at all; it’s about ensuring your loved one is cared for. And you can’t care for them if you’re too busy doing everything else. 

    Some things you might be able to delegate or outsource include: 

    • Housekeeping 
    • Transportation to and from appointments 
    • Laundry 
    • Grocery shopping
    • Meal prep 
    • Dishes 
    • Keeping your loved one company so that you can rest or recharge
    • Running errands, like going to the pharmacy or picking up medical supplies 
    • Yard work or other home maintenance
    • Managing other volunteers

    And before you worry that coordinating all this help is just another thing you have to do, tools exist to help you stay organized. Apps like Lotsa Helping Hands, for example, let you set up a calendar where people can sign up to bring meals or drive your loved one to appointments.

    Join a Support Group

    Being a caregiver can feel isolating at times, but you are far from alone. According to an estimate by the AARP, 43.5 million people in the United States said they provided unpaid care for someone else in the previous 12 months. That’s roughly one out of every six adults. 

    Participating in a caregiver support group can give you an opportunity to talk through some of the challenges you’re experiencing. They give you a place where you can say what you’re feeling to people who’ve probably felt it, too. They also give you a chance to learn from others who are facing similar struggles. 

    Ask your loved one’s doctor if they can recommend a support group, or search online for groups or forums you might be able to access remotely. Sometimes just having a place to vent or talk through problems can help you feel less stressed overall. 

    Be Disciplined About Self-care

    Taking care of yourself is not an indulgence, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Think of it this way: When you’re on a plane, flight attendants warn that, in the event of an emergency, you should put on your own oxygen mask before helping others because you’re no good to other people passed out. Your loved one needs you to take care of yourself—so that you can take care of them. Make self-care as much of a priority as your other caregiving duties.  

    Know the Signs of Burnout—And Get Help Quickly

    Familiarize yourself with the signs of burnout, and get help as soon as you spot them. This is especially important if you start to experience symptoms of depression, use excessive amounts of drugs or alcohol, or you're worried you might hurt yourself or your loved one. If that happens, talk to your doctor or see a mental health professional right away.

    Remember, protecting yourself from caregiving burnout isn’t just about you. You’ll be a better, more attentive caregiver if you’re physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy.

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