When we love someone deeply, we are willing to do anything for them. If they become sick or injured, we want to be by their side to show all the love and support that we can. As I tell my patients though, healing is a marathon, not a sprint, and if you pour everything into your loved one from the start, then you will have no energy left at the end.
The sad truth is, many people who are in the role of full-time caregiver for a sick or injured loved one end up more sick than the patient. In extreme cases, caregivers end up hospitalized or even die before the patient. Not all cases are this extreme, but there is a sense of being overwhelmed and lonely with a sense of loss of self among people who are caregivers to loved ones.
This is known as Caregiver Burnout.
The three main causes of caregiver burnout are:
Time and energy commitment
When your loved one (partner, parent, child or friend) is sick or injured, they may need help on many levels, including physically, emotionally, and financially, as well as learning how to navigate the medical world.
The person in the caregiver role will step in to help provide the support their loved one needs. On top of stepping in for the added support, there will be all sorts of tasks that the sick person used to provide that they are now unable to do. This means that on top of stepping up in new ways, the caregiver also loses some of the support and help that they were used to in their everyday life.
Depending on the type of illness or injury, this time and energy commitment can be short. Maybe a patient has a broken bone that will heal, or a minor reparative surgery. It can also be a long term issue, like a dementia or terminal cancer diagnosis. No matter how short or long the caregiver role will be, the time and energy commitment is very draining. When overwhelmed with tasks that need to be accomplished, most of us let self care be the first thing we get rid of to make more time. This ends up in a cycle of providing all of our own energy caring for our loved one and having no ability to refill our own cup.
Fear of burdening loved one
Your loved one is likely one of the main support systems in your own life. When you are stressed out or having a rough time, it is likely that your loved one was who you went to when you needed to share your emotions, find support and possibly have a partner to look for solutions with.
Most caregivers are afraid to add to the burden of their loved one by sharing emotions and stressors. On top of not wanting to add to the patient’s stress, most caregivers cannot share that the new biggest difficulty in their life is caring for the patient themselves. The inability to share the work and burden’s of life with your loved one can be incredibly isolating and lead to resentment.
Uncertainty of new expectations and boundaries
When faced with the vulnerability of an injury or illness, many patients either do not want to become a burden to their friends or do not trust many people to support them. Patients will insist on staying at home and only allowing one person to take care of their physical and emotional needs.
I have seen many caregivers wear the duty of being sole provider like a badge of honor. Unfortunately, no one can be a person’s everything and still have energy to take care of themselves. Without outside help, Caregivers of loved ones often find themselves playing all the roles; caregiver, friend, nurse, whipping post, emotional support, cook, secretary, sole confidant, etc.
No matter how much we may want to provide our loved ones with everything they need, it is not possible to do so without losing ourselves. Because patients may need you to play multiple different roles every day, it can be impossible to play the right role at the right time, leading to arguments, frustration and misunderstandings.
Taking care of a loved one who needs your help can be an honor, and most of us will show up without question. This role is not easy and can eventually overshadow the previous role of partner, parent, friend or child if not done with intention and the right support. Stay tuned for some tips and resources to take care of yourself during your role as caregiver to avoid burnout.