Caregiver and care receiverCaring for a loved one can be a rewarding experience. Giving back to someone who gave much to you can increase positive emotions and improve quality of life for both of you. At the same time, it’s easy to get burned out when you’re an unpaid caregiver.What starts out as a labor of love can turn into the labor of Sisyphus, condemned to pushing a boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back down again for all eternity.

It’s obviously important to take care of yourself so you have the physical and emotional ability to take care of someone else. Stress, which is nearly universal in caregiving, can easily turn into burnout, when it’s much harder to bounce back. Here are some red flags that indicate you need a break from caregiving.

  1. Getting easily irritated or angered, both at your loved one whom you care for and at others. You find yourself yelling or snapping at people. You want to hit or throw things. It may even be hard to stop yourself from hitting or being too physically forceful with your loved one. It becomes increasingly difficult to handle obstacles or challenges when they inevitably arise.
  2. Inability to control your emotional response. You cry unexpectedly or more often than usual. You have feelings of desperation, or have dramatic mood swings, where you feel OK one minute and the next you’re in the depths of despair. If your loved one has a degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s, another form of dementia, MS, ALS, or Parkinson’s, it’s normal to feel sad as you watch them decline. Depression is a real risk, however, so be careful your sadness is not a sign of clinical depression.
  3. Inability to sleep, difficulty either falling asleep or staying asleep. Chronic sleep deficiency increases your risk for many other health problems, like cognitive decline (and possibly even Alzheimer’s), memory loss, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. If you are taking care of a dementia patient, you may be woken frequently at night by their night wanderings, even if you don’t have difficulty with sleeping on your own.
  4. Getting sick too often. Many people get a minor virus once or twice a year, but if you are catching every new cold that comes around, something is off in your immune system, a sure sign you are under too much stress.
  5. Increase in physical ailments, such as headaches, joint, or muscle aches that have become chronic or frequent. You may experience new health issues such as chronic headaches, muscle or joint aches, stomachaches or other digestive symptoms; or something you had before becoming a caregiver may become worse. If a condition such as blood pressure that formerly was under control becomes worse, that’s a sure sign you’re under too much stress.
  6. Complaints from your family. Common complaints from family members include spending too much time away from them, becoming a “control freak,” arguing too much with siblings or other family members about the level and quality of care you provide. You may not even be able to listen to what they have to say.
  7. Social isolation. Whole days go by without your seeing another adult besides your loved one. You can’t summon the energy to get together with friends; in fact, the prospect just makes you tired thinking about it. You may have dropped out of activities you used to enjoy. You may feel you’re the only one who can take care of your loved one. You can’t relax and you don’t want to accept help when it’s offered.

If you see yourself in some of these situations, you may be approaching burnout. At the least, you are under a lot of stress and you might want to consider what you could do to ease your situation. Caregiver burnout is one of the most common reasons for placing a loved one in assisted living or a nursing home.

You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of someone else. Next week we’ll look at help that’s available from a variety of sources.