Becoming a primary caregiver for your aging parent or other older adult loved one is an honorable choice, and it can be one with many benefits. This can be a time in your life when you're able to give back to someone who has always cared for you, and you may find that you can become closer or remain closer to a loved one, even as your relationship evolves.
However, caring at this level for someone can be a serious commitment that impacts the rest of your life. More than a third of all caregivers say they don't get enough sleep, for example, and around 15% to 17% say they've had two weeks or more of mentally or physically unhealthy days in the past month. These types of issues can lead to caregiver burnout. It's important to know the signs of caregiver burnout so you can take proactive steps to maintain your health too.
Let's dig into eight common signs of caregiver burnout.
It may seem natural to give up time on hobbies or other activities to help care for your loved one. And while you may be willing to switch your schedule around to make room for a new responsibility in your life, if you no longer have any interest in doing things you once enjoyed, that can be a sign of burnout (as well as depression).
For example, if you always enjoyed getting up in the morning and reading a little or gardening with joy every spring but don't even want to do those activities now, it may be an issue.
Not taking care of your own body and appearance can be a sign of burnout and depression. We're not talking about having to skip the shower because something came up with your older loved one. We're talking about often skipping showers or not doing your hair or caring about your clothing because you're too tired to put any effort in.
The same is true for attending to your own health needs. If you're skipping or not scheduling your own doctor or dentist appointments because you can't find the time or don't care enough to do so, this may be a sign of burnout. The same is true if you've stopped exercising or eating right because it seems like too much work.
Sudden weight gain or loss without other explanations, such as you've been exercising or have a medical condition, can be a sign of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. These can be related to the stress of caregiving or burnout.
Weight fluctuations as a caregiver can also come because you're not eating well. You may snack at night to deal with stress or eat whatever's handy because you feel too busy to prepare healthy food for yourself and sit down to enjoy it.
Ongoing and severe fatigue can be a sign of burnout and depression. Some people simply don't get enough sleep when acting as the primary caregiver for another person. They may go to bed late and get up early to get some time to themselves or take care of things before taking care of the other person. Or, they may be afraid to sleep too heavily because their older loved one tends to wander the house at night, which could pose a danger.
But even if you believe you're getting enough sleep — or more than enough — burnout can make you feel tired and without energy. If you've done what you can to fix sleep issues and you're still tired, it might be time to consider burnout as the cause.
Burnout can lead to serious mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety and mood swings. If you've never experienced these types of issues before and suddenly find yourself fixating on things, having panic or anxiety attacks or bouncing back and forth in unexplained mood extremes, it could be that you've simply reached a breaking point in what you're able to do on your own for someone else.
Some people who experience burnout have physical symptoms, including muscle aches, headaches and digestive issues, that aren't otherwise unexplained by any illness or condition. In some cases, these aches don't usually respond to over-the-counter medications, which means they persist even if you take Motrin or Tylenol.
Finally, burnout can leave you feeling bitter and angry at these responsibilities. That's true even if, intellectually, you know you love this older adult and were happy to take on these responsibilities. Feelings of bitterness and anger can cause guilt, which creates a cycle of these feelings when you're burned out.
If you believe you're experiencing symptoms of burnout, ask for help. Find ways other loved ones can pitch in to remove some of the burden, and consider the benefits of respite care. Respite care lets your loved one spend a few days or weeks in an assisted living community, where they receive excellent care and social opportunities while you're able to recharge and relax so you can care for them without burnout again.