"Caring is hard work and it is all too easy to put unrealistic demands on yourself, despite a desire to do your best at all times - but it can lead to physical, emotional and mental exhaustion." Adam Pike from SuperCarers looks at why carers can suffer from stress and burnout and offers useful strategies to cope.
Caring can be very rewarding, but also incredibly tough, especially if it involves dealing with a loved one's declining health.
You're looking after someone you love, and perhaps in very difficult circumstances. You may even be grieving for the person that they used to be, and perhaps also the person you used to be; you may be missing the professional and/or personal life you used to have in the past.
In some instances - especially where carers feel unsupported or overwhelmed by their responsibilities, it can lead to caregiver burnout; a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. This is often the case where a carer feels guilty about taking time out and keeps overworking.
Many things can cause or collectively contribute to caregiver stress and burnout, including the following.
Individually, and collectively, these are can all be incredibly tough to deal with. Caring is hard work and it is all too easy to put unrealistic demands on yourself, despite your desire to give your best at all times. Navigating the change of role from child to carer can also be a great emotional strain. You are caring for your own family members and will only want the best for them, but will feel under all sorts of pressures, especially where all concerned have to adjust their expectations and adapt to a new, and perhaps uncertain, new reality.
Sometimes it's obvious that we are feeling stressed and perhaps burned out. At other times the signs may be less clear. Keep an eye on your mood: have you been feeling depressed or irritable? How is your sleep? Are you sleeping more or less than usual? What about your eating habits - are you eating a lot more or a lot less, gaining or losing weight? Perhaps you can't relax, you can't wind down, or you're just exhausted. How do you feel physically? Are you covered in aches and pains or catching every cold and bug that's doing the rounds? Maybe you're feeling upset, resentful or bitter at your situation and feel that there is nothing in your life outside of your caregiving responsibilities.
Caregiver stress can also manifest in the way you relate to the person you're caring for. You may be finding that you're impatient, frustrated or irritable with them, even when you fully intend to be as pleasant and patient as possible. You may even find that you're neglecting your caring responsibilities to some degree - a result of feeling overwhelmed by them, or by a sense of a loss of your own identity since becoming a carer, especially if your work has been very important to you and you have had to give it up, or significantly change your working life or work pattern.
The strategies that follow should help you to improve your situation now - and prevent you from feeling even worse in the future.
1 - Talk to friends
Friends can provide the first line of defence when something goes wrong. They can provide support, advice and even good humour when things feel rotten; invaluable when you're overworked and overwhelmed. It's especially valuable to talk to friends in a similar situation as others with caring responsibilities will have an insight into the life you're living.
2 - Remember why you started caring
This may just be the motivation you need to carry on. Perhaps you wanted to know they were cared for by somebody they loved, or else you wanted to spend more time with them? Whatever your motivation initially was, remind yourself of this when things are tough.
3 - Ask for practical help
You shouldn't have to bear all the responsibility yourself, so talk to other relatives to see how they can help. Think about who else you can ask for help, or how you might make life a little easier: perhaps a neighbour could collect your child from school, or you could buy ready-made food more often?
4 - Look after your health
Although you're focused on somebody else's health, you mustn't neglect your own. Make sure you're eating a healthy, balanced diet and try to get enough sleep. Regular exercise is also essential if you're to start to feel better and get more perspective on your life and responsibilities. Whether you enjoy yoga, running in the park, or hiking in the hills, make some time each week to do some exercise you enjoy.
5 - Get professional support
There's no shame in seeking professional help, and at-home carers can be absolute lifesavers to give you a break and give your relative the top-quality care they deserve. Seek out respite care too - it can be offered as a one-off or, ideally, as a regular break for you and the person you care for. This could happen via a carer or befriending volunteer who comes to your relative's home, or by using day care services or residential respite care. Either way, external support can be a breath of fresh air.
6 - Accept help when offered
You might be a proud person who doesn't like to accept help, or you might feel like you're giving up. But it will help everybody involved if you're less overwhelmed.
7 - Be realistic and learn
Don't live in denial about the condition of the person you're looking after. Be realistic about what their illness or progression is likely to be like. This may mean learning more about their condition, perhaps online but also from your relative's doctor or nurse too, to find out what you can expect. The more you know, the better equipped you will be to deal with the twists and turns that will arise.
8 - Acknowledge yourself
Every day, you're making a difference to the person you're looking after. Focus on what you have achieved and what you're achieving every time you help them get dressed or visit and chat over a cup of tea. What you're doing is wonderful and, if you can feel proud of the difference you're making, you will invariably feel less overwhelmed.
If self-help methods aren't working and you feel you're becoming unwell, visit your doctor for help. They can suggest the best course of action, perhaps some mild antidepressants, or counselling or therapy. Alternatively, you may want to go directly to a private counsellor or therapist who you can research and find via local online directories. Some may offer a free consultation so you can see if there is a good fit. A third option is to speak to local carers' organisations, including those with support groups. Meeting with others in the same situation can work wonders in reminding you that you're not alone and your struggles are not unique to you.
The key thing is to never feel embarrassed about needing help. Whether you chat informally to a friend or talk in depth in a professional therapy appointment, these are both ways to get the support you need to continue the vital work you're doing.
SuperCarers helps families to connect personally with professional carers in their local area, and easily manage their care requirements online. This includes live-in, day-time and night-time care in London and Birmingham, and live-in care throughout mainland UK. For more information visit SuperCarers or call 020 8629 1030