Diabetes Forecast

Coping With Caregiver Burnout

By Lindsey Wahowiak ,

Gary Barg came home to visit his mother and elderly grandparents one summer. His mother served as caregivers for both. During his visit, Barg says he was amazed by the sheer amount of work his mom did for his grandparents. Doctor visits, pharmacy runs, insurance wrangling—every day was filled with important decisions, and his mother was exhausted. When Barg told his mother he was glad to have visited during this especially stressful time, though, she didn't understand. "She was dumbfounded because it was just two normal weeks for [her as] a caregiver," he remembers. "She was in the middle of [burnout] so she didn't see what was happening."

That experience is what led Barg to start Today's Caregiver magazine and caregiver.com, a resource for caregivers to connect with others in their shoes and learn more about caregiving—including for themselves. Caregiver burnout often goes unnoticed. It is the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that comes with caring for a loved one dealing with any variety of health issues or aging. The National Family Caregivers Association points out that caregivers often put their own well-being on the back burner—and, gone unchecked, this can affect both caregivers and their loved ones. "As a dietitian, I take my role of caregiver very seriously," says Michel Harris, RD, LDN, CDE, a member of the Diabetes Forecast Reader Panel. "I feel that if I were to burn out, I would no longer be entitled to help others."

Learning more about burnout, and where to go for help, can help you take better care of yourself and, in turn, take better care of your loved ones.

Beat Burnout
To learn more about caregiving for someone with diabetes, as well as diabetes burnout, call 1-800-DIABETES (1-800-342-2383) or visit diabetes.org. The book Stress-Free Diabetes by Joseph P. Napora, PhD, LCSW-C, also has information on diabetes care and burnout. It's available at shopdiabetes.org.

Recognize the Signs
Barg says his mother did not see the signs of her own burnout, but for him, they were noticeable. He likens it to the proverbial frog in a pot of water: If you drop the frog in while the water boils, it'll jump right out. If you put the frog in cold water and turn up the heat slowly, though, it won't realize it's getting cooked.

Jane Greller, whose husband, John, is a Reader Panel member, says she felt the pressure during his hospital stays. "When [my husband] was so sick before and after his two transplants, my world shrunk to the walls of the hospital," she says. "There were enormous resources for caregivers of sick children but none for people like us. I was unable to recognize burnout."

Some signs of burnout include getting sick frequently, depression, tension, and isolation. These can build slowly, and because caregivers are often isolated, they might not have someone nearby to point out the symptoms. Check in with yourself regularly. The National Family Caregivers Association (nfcacares.org) and AARP (aarp.org) both list signs of caregiver burnout for you to do a self-assessment.

Maintain Normalcy
Part of self-care can include trying to keep some semblance of your daily or weekly routine. Deborah J. Cornwall, author of Things I Wish I'd Known: Cancer Caregivers Speak Out, interviewed dozens of caregivers for her book. In those interviews, she says one topic was often discussed: the search for "the new normal" in a time of unpredictability. "You're a grouch when you don't … get a piece back of your usual routine," she says. One couple she interviewed, a woman with breast cancer and her husband, made sure he got time to play drums with his garage band for a few hours every week. "It was something that reminded them that there was a piece of normal life that they were maintaining," Cornwall says.

If your caregiving schedule doesn't allow for your usual recreational activities, try for at least a little exercise. The National Family Caregivers Association says it's one of the best and simplest ways to maintain your own health. Getting outside, and among other people, is really helpful, Cornwall says.

Ask for Help
No one wants to be a burden on others. But asking for help as a caregiver is a huge factor in maintaining your own mental health. Don't forget those closest to you. Your family is the ultimate built-in support system. Sometimes all it takes is for you to ask. Sarah Howard, a Reader Panel member, says she gets more burned out with her own diabetes than with her son's. When she does feel stressed, however, she turns to her husband for help. "I do get frustrated and sick of it, feel like I can't deal anymore, and might ask my husband to take over for a night," she says.

If you're not sure where to turn or if, like Greller, your family lives "a plane ride away," start with your loved one's health care providers. "There's a whole complex of resources that are connected with health care institutes," Cornwall says. "There are generally also support groups and resource libraries. And periodically people will reach out and say, 'I can help.' "

If there's not a support group near you, you can find resources online. Barg's caregiver.com compiles resources for caregivers, including care tips, local resources, conferences, and more. Barg also suggests getting in touch with the American Diabetes Association and the organizations that research and advocate for your loved one's main and related health conditions. Such associations have information to help your loved one—and you. After all, he says, "You're on the front line."



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