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Experts Share 10 Ways To Outsmart Caregiver Burnout, Plus the ‘Zoom In’ Secret to Easing Stress

There is no task more rewarding — or draining. Here, easy ways to lift your spirits and find comfort in genuine self-care

Of the 53 million caregivers in the U.S., more than 61% are women. And while that means you are part of a legion of compassionate warriors doing invaluable work on behalf of your loved ones, it can also feel isolating, like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. In fact, according to a new AARP study, 56% of caregivers say their responsibilities make it hard to tend to their mental health. Women feel significantly more anxiety then their male counterparts. It’s not surprising caregiver burnout is reaching all-time highs.

The good news: The same study revealed that 82% of caregivers discovered a powerful sense of purpose in their duties. Read on for simple caregiver burnout strategies that will help you take care of yourself just as well as you take care of the people you hold most dear.   

1. Outsmart caregiver burnout with information 

A huge source of caregiver burnout stems from not knowing what to expect from your loved one’s illness or disability, reveals Sara Honn Qualls, PhD, board certified clinical geropsychologist who specializes in supporting families through challenges of later life, author of Caregiver Family Therapy and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.

“A lot of caregivers may realize their loved one is experiencing cognitive changes, for instance, but they don’t fully understand how to support their health or provide resources,” says Qualls. She explains that because so many behavioral shifts are ambiguous or gradual, especially in the case of dementia, it’s natural to blame their personality or interpersonal dynamics rather than the situation, which can leave you feeling hurt and angry.

Related: A Mom Shares Her Story of How She Found Hope Caring for Special Needs Kids

“Ask yourself what you know about their illness and how it will affect everyday function,” advises Qualls. “Just learning that their cognition is expected to vary from day to day, for example, can relieve your anxiety. If they needed help finding the silverware for lunch yesterday yet are offended when you offer the same assistance today, you’ll know it’s their condition causing this variability, not their stubbornness.” To gather the information you need to ally caregiver burnout and feel more in-control, she recommends starting with the Family Caregiver Alliance and the Caregiver Action Network.

2. Discover your ‘anchor’

Why are you caregiving? The answer will boost your energy and prevent caregiver burnout. “Data from all over the world show that connecting to your values is an incredibly effective way to reduce caregiver stress. It’s so important to identify your ‘why’ because this is your anchor point,’” assures Qualls, explaining that yours might be anything from knowing you’re doing God’s work to taking comfort in living up to your highest ideals.

Related: Overwhelmed by Caregiver Stress? Here’s How Humor Can Heal

Depending on your situation, the meaning you take from caregiving may also be less lofty and more practical. “Many caregivers are looking after family members with whom they’ve had a strained relationship.” She suggests reminding yourself of the reason you’ve decided to take this on, despite having mixed feelings, such as, “My dad is a difficult person, but I don’t want him to suffer. I will respect my boundaries around him, yet I’m also willing to oversee his care.” “It’s not a bad thing if your ‘why’ is a sense of family obligation — that’s honorable.”

3. Caregiver burnout tip: Be kind to you

Woman watering flowers in garden: Caregiver burnout
Marc Romanelli/Getty

Because their responsibilities can feel all-consuming, many caregivers begin to feel disconnected from their identity, reveals psychologist Allison J. Applebaum, PhD, Founding Director of the Caregivers Clinic at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “One of the most important self-care remedies is to find ways to make you feel like you again,” she encourages. “For example, if you’re an avid gardener, yet no longer have time to tend to your flower beds, you might put up a small window box instead.”

Small is the operative word, as it prevents your self-care ritual from becoming just another to-do. “I’m a former ballet dancer and I know when I was caring for my dad, if I had signed up for five dance classes a week, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. But once a week was manageable and gave me the release I needed. It can be as simple as pouring yourself a cup of hot tea, taking a few deep breaths or carving out just one minute to feel the sunshine on your face. You decide what works for you.”

4. Give yourself permission to grieve

Oftentimes, anger we feel toward the person we’re taking care of masks a deeper grief experienced in caregiver burnout. Applebaum, author of the forthcoming book, Stand By Me: A Guide to Navigating Modern, Meaningful Caregiving, recalls how a woman who was tending to her husband would find herself getting upset with him for no longer being able to take care of the house. “Beneath that anger, it was really sadness she felt over her once-robust partner getting weaker,” she says. “This anticipatory grief scared her, but once she gave herself space to express her sadness, she found some comfort. The simple act of labeling what you’re going through is healing.”

5. Check your ‘resent-o-meter’

Caregiver burnout can churn up many difficult emotions, including resentment. To regain control over this hidden or “taboo” feeling, “Picture a ‘resent-o-meter,’ that ticks up when your boundaries have been overextended or disrespected,” suggests Qualls. She recalls doing this with a caregiver who had given up taking a hike so she could tend to a loved one — even though her family had offered to help her. “When she focused on her resent-o-meter, she realized she was ‘over-offering,’ and if she had given herself permission to accept a helping hand, she would have been able to take that hike.” To sidestep such simmering resentment, pinpoint a few concrete examples of responsibilities you might be able to delegate and what you need to feel nurtured.

When Qualls’ patient did just that, she realized she was yearning for something she hadn’t given herself permission to feel. “She was still sleeping in the same bed as her husband with dementia. Every time he rolled over, he would wake her up, so we began a conversation about having separate bedrooms. For a long time, her private wish was to have a reading chair. She needed this space, and not having it was fueling her resentment.” Simply acknowledging what your proverbial chair is, and what’s driving your resentment, can help you ensure your needs are being met and reduce caregiver burnout.

6. Accept a helping hand to reduce burnout

Gathering your “caregiving team” is essential for your mental and physical wellbeing as well as for the health of the caregiving recipient, observes Applebaum. “Be as specific as possible, like, ‘I could really use your help with meal prep next week.’ Or, ‘can you please set up a meal train?’” And when someone offers help, even if you’re not sure what you may need in the moment, she encourages always saying yes. “You can just say, ‘Thank you. I know I’m going to need assistance at some point, and I’ll reach back out.’” Remember, there is no statute of limitations on a helping hand.

7. Caregiver burnout tip: Sidestep sibling stress

“Caregiving is not an individual’s task alone — it’s a family issue,” says clinical psychologist Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D., long-time columnist on family caregiving for AARP.Or at least it should be. He explains that fraught sibling dynamics around how to share caregiving responsibilities for aging parents is a common cause of tension. “I always tell siblings that how you decide to work together can either strengthen or weaken your ties forever. It can make a huge difference if all three siblings decide to divide the tasks compared to a situation where one of them refuses to pitch in.”

If the latter scenario sounds all-too familiar, Jacobs, author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers, suggests focusing on the relationship you have with your sibling, rather than making this entirely about your parents. “You might say, ‘I’m not asking you do this for Dad. I’m asking you do this for me because I’m struggling. If you don’t help me by doing X, like taking Dad the doctor’s office, I’m going to have feelings about it.’” Lay your cards on the table, and be clear about your needs, because, more often than not, the people who love you will step up.

8. Find help for ‘hidden’ caregiving

While 50% of caregivers are looking after aging parents, only 12% are tending to their spouse, reveals Jacobs. It’s easy to see why this caregiving cohort tends to feel isolated or overlooked. “All caregiving is challenging, but I would say it’s harder when it comes to your husband or wife because your entire identity — your hopes and dreams — is affected.”

Some caregiver burnout is specific to spousal caregiving, he says: “You might struggle with questions like, ‘Can I still love them? Is there a different way I can love them?’” Still more heart-wrenching is the common refrain: “I’m not in love with this person anymore, yet I have to take care of them.” While answers to such deep dilemmas may be elusive, simply admitting that you’re struggling with them can confer a measure of relief, Jacobs assures. For more tangible assistance, he recommends tapping the Well Spouse Association, where you can find everything from tips to support groups.

9. Savor the small stuff in caregiving

magnifying glass zooming in on flowers; caregiver burnout
anna negatina/Getty Images

The weight of caregiving feels different to different people, observes Deidre Edwards, author of Toolkit For Caregivers. “When I was looking after my husband, I felt almost as though a parachute had settled over me. I was trapped and fighting it, until I learned to calm myself and take control of what I could. I was still under that parachute but instead of punching at it, I was stretching it, and my motions became slower and more graceful,” she recalls, adding that you can feel caregiver burnout and still learn to enjoy the space you occupy under it by shifting your focus. “When you zoom out and look at the bigger picture, it can seem overwhelming. But zooming in on the little things, like tidying the junk drawer or pruning your rose bush, helps to restore your sense of control.”

In fact, Edwards took comfort in small moments literally by picking up a magnifying glass. “I explored everything from flower petals to the tiny ridges on leaves. There are so many worlds at your fingertips that will put your world in perspective. Sometimes when you can’t see that far into the future or beyond yourself and your situation, it helps to look within and even down at your feet, at the beauty around you.”

10. Cheer your space with easy tweaks

The power of the environment to lift your spirits and energize you can’t be underestimated in helping caregiver burnout. “When my husband got sick, his world shrank to the four walls of our bedroom. Cheering up your space is so important for you and the caregiver,” shares Edwards, adding that she made tiny tweaks like swapping out the painting her husband saw from his bed and using suction cups to hang a window bird feeder in his room so he could enjoy feathered visitors every day.

Are you crafty or creative? Consider ways to tap into that talent, like Edwards did when she cleverly split pool noodles lengthwise and placed them on the railings of her husband’s bed to make the cold metal a little softer. “If you don’t have time, ask someone handy in your life, like a neighbor or a fellow church member to, say, hang a bird feeder from a shepherd’s hook in your yard — there are so many people who want to help but don’t know how.”

For more self-care stories, keep reading:

Eating Chocolate Really Can Cure Stress, say the Experts, And Other Self-Care Tricks To Boost Joy

“I Tried the Newest Self-Care Trend — the ‘Everything Shower’ — and Loved How It Made Me Look and Feel!

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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