I have worked as a carer and have spent years being both a carer and someone who requires full-time care and support. Taking care of someone with an incurable long-term condition is a demanding job that can be overwhelming and overwhelmingly stressful. Many people provide care to loved ones on top of their usual day whilst also juggling other responsibilities as well as a career. Others have sacrificed their hobbies, their careers, their chance at personal fulfilment in order to manage being a full-time carer. It is often not a job anyone has volunteered for or signed up to do. Carers do it because they care.
Carer stress and burnout is common. Being a caregiver is stressful and time consuming. It is difficult watching someone you love suffer and deteriorate, it is difficult to make personal sacrifices in order to care for them and quite often, financial burdens quickly pile up as money runs out as a result of not having time or the ability to work due to care giving responsibilities.
Signs of carer burnout are similar to those of depression:
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
- Loosing interest in the things you previously enjoyed
- Irritability, anger outbursts, frustration
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Withdrawal from family, friends and social activities previously enjoyed
- Feeling hopeless and helpless
- Changes in sleep unrelated to care responsibilities
- Getting sick more often, constantly having colds
- Feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope
If you experience any of these, make sure you tell the people involved in your care as well as the people you may be working with to provide care. If you feel unable to keep providing the level of care that you are doing and have no support, get in touch with social services and your GP to see if they can lighten the load by providing some support. Be aware this process usually takes months at best before any support is actually available, so don’t rely on it to come through quickly or easily. If you are really struggling, emergency support can be put in place sooner, but it is extremely difficult to obtain.
If you are in crises and need immediate support, contact everyone you can. Get in touch with local and national carer support agencies, advocacy agencies and contact both social services and your GP. If you are doing okay, but want to do better, here are a few tips:
1. Ask for help through creative avenues
Talk to the person you care for
Providing care for a family member is a two-way relationship. Often caregivers are also parents, siblings, children and spouses. If possible, talk to the person you look after and work out some schedules and structures that prioritize breaks for you. Coordinate with the person you are caring for. Take your break when they are resting or asleep. Tell them when you take a break so that they don’t interrupt with non-essential requests.
Divide tasks and responsibilities
Approach family and friends first and pool your resources. Someone may be able to help out for a few hours on a Saturday once a month, another relative might be able to take over for a weekend 3-4 times a year. Some friends might be happy to stop in at the supermarket for you, whilst others would prefer mowing the lawn or taking over your caring duties instead. Build a network of reliable and sustainable help from trusted sources and try to off-load tasks to people who enjoy them.
Make use of on-line support
Don’t discount on-line support. Depending on the nature of your caring responsibilities, someone might be able to help you out through a video call. Even if you can’t leave the house, it might make it possible for you to step away and spend some time in a different room relaxing. Even if you couldn’t leave the room, virtual help can still help reduce your workload. Curl up with a book in an arm chair whilst someone else reads a story or put on puppet show through a video call.
2. Take breaks
Make it a priority
Carers often feel guilty taking breaks. Chronically short on time, they often try to maximize what we have. When someone offers to take over the care role, most care givers jump straight into their to-do list and nip to the supermarket, put on a load of laundry, write a few emails or mow the lawn. Taking a break is low on the priority list. Move it up. Prioritize free time and don’t squander break time on things that seem or might be, essential.
Invest in mini-breaks. If the stress is getting to you, get out of the room for 5 minutes. If someone is in a safe environment, most people that require care can be left alone for a short while. Unless medical circumstances require your presence in the room at all times, take 5 minutes every 30-45 minutes to just have a break.
Regular structured breaks
Most mental health guidelines advise that carers have at least 30 minutes – 2 hours every day as a break from caring duties. If possible, get someone else to take over your duties for an hour or two every day. It may not always be possible to get that level of support, but it may be possible to get some time to relax by just being on ‘stand-by’.
- Schedule a regular time during the day for a longer break and take your break when they are at their best time during the day or when they are resting
- Make sure the person you care for has everything at hand so that there is no need to summon you except for an emergency
- Tell them that you are taking a breaking and will only be available for an emergency
- Then actually take a break. Turn off your phone, tune out and do something that you find enjoyable and relaxing. Have an emergency alert system in place so you can be reached in an emergency, but switch off all other alerts.
3. Meet your own basic needs
It isn’t always possible to stick to a regular schedule, but even when things are crazy, try to make time for the important things.
Even if cooking a hot meal every day seems like something there will never be time in the day for, make sure to eat regular meals. Pour a bowl of cereal, grab an apple, make a sandwich or put something from the freezer in the oven. It takes time and effort to set up healthy meal plans and time for cooking and when you are caring for someone to the point where you are risking burnout, these are not priorities that are high on the to-do list. Simplify. Plan for 2-3 days at most.
It doesn’t have to be an hour at the gym four times a week. Find time to exercise. Take the person you care for out for a walk, do 5 minutes of yoga or stretching whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, someone to finish in the bathroom so you can help them back to their chair or stretch whilst making phone calls or answering e-mails. Invest in a stationary bike or treadmill at home (they are quite affordable second hand) and spend a few minutes in the evening getting some aerobic exercise. If you are caring for a child that is physically active, play with them, take them to the park or into the garden and run around playing chase or football. Get more active even though you’re exhausted.
Sleep when you can as much as you can
The first thing everyone always says is make sure you get plenty of sleep. Rest up so that you can be a better carer and have more energy to always do the things you love. If you provide 24-hour care, that isn’t an option. So if you cannot get 8 hours every night, squeeze out the most that you can in 24 hours.
Nap. Not all people can sleep in the day time, but if you can, do so. If you feel that you cannot spend hours asleep in the day, sleep for 30 minutes.
Schedule your sleep during their best night time periods. People with chronic illness often have a pattern – some sleep best for the first few hours of the night whilst others sleep best in the early morning hours. It’s often difficult to fall asleep straight away, usually the good parts of their day is prefaced by the worst part and after dealing with hours of crying, screaming or helping someone in severe pain, you are physically and emotionally exhausted and wound up. Don’t try to force yourself to sleep. Spend a while unwinding and relaxing first and then sleep as soon as you are ready.
Do things that you enjoy doing. Having fun doesn’t always mean going off on your own leaving your family as you leave your care duties for a break. The people you are taking care of are most likely close family that you live with. Have fun with them. Find activities you can all enjoy together. Spend time together engage in things other than being a carer and being cared for. Be a parent, be a spouse, be a sibling, be a daughter or son. There is so much more to life than care giving.
Carers UK is a charity set up to help the millions of people who look after an older, disabled or seriously ill family member or friend. If you are struggling to manage as a carer, they provide information, advice and support through a national network operating in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.