Bonnie is burnt, just like the over-toasted piece of bread that pops up from her toaster every morning. She even looks a little toasted–frayed around the edges with new wrinkles forming every day.
She spends as much time as she can with her father who resides in his own home. “As much as she can” means lunch (rushing from her job) and dinner (then rushing home to cook for her family). Her evenings include phone call updates to her siblings, sharing the same information over and over.
She’s tired of worrying, feeling guilty and being late.
When you’re a caregiver, you use a lot of energy. The physical tasks of caregiving can be tiring, but the experience’s emotional toll will burn you to a crisp. Finding patience, managing the losses, feeling the grief and trying to work through your resentments will wear on you.
How do you know if you are burnt? You may be toast if you:
… feel your short fuse getting shorter by the moment. Everything seems to set you off–you’re just mad all the time.
… you can’t get enough sleep. Even if you let yourself sleep in on Sunday mornings, you don’t wake rested.
… you feel yourself dragging to the skilled nursing facility, around the house, at work. It’s all just a drag.
… your house looks like the last hour of a garage sale. Piles of laundry, paperwork and take-out containers sit on every inch of your kitchen counter.
… you don’t spend time with those who are important to you. It seems like too much work to get together with family and friends. So you don’t.
… someone calls you Niagara Falls because of how quickly the water works start for you. You seem to be constantly on the verge of tears.
What’s the cure for burn-out? Some suggestions:
- Create a ritual during your day that connects you to your purpose–meditate, pray, enjoy quiet time in nature. The ritual may last just five minutes—that’s OK. It’s yours and that’s what’s important
- Delegate or change a responsibility or task. For instance, change how you communicate updates with family members. Start a blog to post updates for family and friends, which minimizes the repetitive phone calls. Or, send one email message to everyone.
- Plan for breaks. Taking time off during caregiving requires planning and creative solutions; our three-part respite series offers suggestions to help you take a break for a few hours, a day and a week.
- Take care of your clutter. Do you fret about something you did last week or last year? If you owe an apology because of your behavior, apologize today. If you have paperwork to complete but continuously put it off, do it today. If you have a phone call you dread making, do it today. If you have a relationship which drains you, walk away today.
- Give yourself a fresh start every day. Forgive what went wrong yesterday. If you re-run the events of yesterday today, you live in your past and miss out on your today.
- Manage the moment rather than the future. When something goes wrong, you may jump to an assumption about what might happen. For instance, you struggle to manage your family member’s incontinence. Each time you struggle, your thoughts jump to what could happen: Will your family member have to move to a nursing home and resent you forever? Taking that jump, though, means you are managing something which has not happened. Manage the moment instead. Incontinence is a struggle. What’s a possible solution? Can you hire more help? Can you try different products? Can you ask for suggestions from other family caregivers? When you manage the moment, you move into solving the problem at hand. When you mange the future, you stay stuck worried about something which hasn’t happened without actually making your situation better.
- Protect your time. Think about your day like a store that has an hour when it opens and an hour when it closes. While you may have to be available 24/7 hours for your ill family member, you can limit your availability to other family members, friends, tasks and responsibilities to your store hours. If you stay open to everyone all the time, you’ll exceed your bandwidth. If your store closes at 9 p.m., then laundry, phone calls, cleaning and worrying stop at 9 p.m. Others will follow your lead; when you protect your time, others will respect it. When family members or friends or worries try to tempt you into opening after hours, simply tell them, “I’m closed for the day. I open up again tomorrow at 8. Let’s talk then.”
- Know that caregiving hurts, which means you will need regular chances to heal. Healing means tears, sadness and heartache. Healing also means being vulnerable, which feels like a weakness but is actually a strength. Your vulnerability will become your greatest asset during caregiving because it connects you to support and solutions. When you’re vulnerable, you can take the next step to solve the hurt. When you resist vulnerability, you stay stuck in pain. Talk about your hurt with others who understand or write it out so that it no longer weighs heavy on your heart. Make your healing a priority.
We believe we can run on empty. The truth is, when we’re empty, we’re at our worst. Time off, even from our personal commitments so important to us like caregiving, give us a chance to fill up again. When we’re full, we operate much smoother.
Denise founded CareGiving.com in 1996 to support those who care for a family member or friend. She’s the author of several books for family caregivers including The Caregiving Years, Six Stages to a Meaningful Journey and Take Comfort, Reflections of Hope for Family Caregivers.