By Dr. Nina Radcliff
In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, flight attendants instruct passengers to place the oxygen mask on themselves before they try to help their children or other passengers. Reason being: if someone passes out while administering help, neither the person helping nor receiving help will benefit. Few can argue with this logic.
With the growing number of adult caregivers — an estimated 43.5 million Americans taking care of someone over the age of 50 years—we are seeing a new phenomenon known as caregiver burnout. This term describes a state of “physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that may be accompanied by a change in attitude — from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned.” And it is associated with an increased risk for arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, illness due to immune system impairment, and mental health issues (stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression and hopelessness).
What are the benefits of caring for an adult family member?
In addition to supporting acts of love, kindness, or mitzvah, caregiving fosters feelings of personal satisfaction, a special bond with that person, and the opportunity to heal old wounds or misunderstandings. In some countries and families it is considered the highest calling. Studies have also shown that caregivers are more resistant to cognitive decline because they are often required to perform complex thought-duties: managing schedules, monitoring medications, and assuming financial responsibilities. Similar to the concept of lifting weights to build muscle mass, when we think, our brain stays strong.
Why does caregiving cause stress?
We are assuming the physical responsibility of taking care of someone as well as having an emotional response to watching a loved one become dependent. Many times this means watching them no longer being the person we knew.
Family caregivers routinely sacrifice leisure activities, vacations, saving for our future (or our children’s future), in addition to basic needs such as clothing, utilities, transportation, groceries, or personal medical or dental expenses. Added to these, we often do not take time to recharge. There is a term called the “sandwich generation” that describes caregivers who manage the needs of their aging parents on one side, and their own children on the other — at times, this becomes a very demanding juggling act.
Do I have caregiver burnout?
There is no clear formula. But if we find ourselves saying yes to some of the following, we may be experiencing burnout:
—Short fuse: losing our temper over minor things; or being angry or
irritable with family members or the person we are caring for.
—Sleep problems: can result from depression, stress, or anxiety.
Interrupted sleep can also arise because the person we are caring for
has disrupted sleep patterns.
—Physical ailments: headaches, recurrent infections, stomach aches,
back and neck pain.
—Social isolation: going a whole day without seeing another person
besides the person we are caring for; stopping our usual activities.
—Complaints from family: hearing we are “control freaks” or not
spending enough time with our children or spouse.
How can I prevent caregiver burnout?
—Ask for help from family members, healthcare professionals, or
resources within the community.
—Stay connected to friends and life outside of being a caregiver.
Carve out a niche for a favorite pastime and think carefully before
quitting your job (not only for the financial benefits but also for
the project and skill stimulation as well as team relationship
—Talk to the person we are caring for (and other family members), if
possible, about what’s appropriate for us to help with, and what they
should still try to do on their own.
—Accept the fact that we cannot do everything, and do what we can.
Research and consider professional help, as well as explore other
—Join a support group. Allows a forum to express concerns and
frustrations, receive emotional support, and connect with various
Having caregiver burnout may be compared to a frog in a pot of water.
As the heat is turned up bit by bit, the frog usually doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. Caregiving has immeasurable benefits. And by taking initiative with our own physical and emotional care, we put ourselves in a position to continue in our role. Remember, if we fall ill, we will soon be in the position where we need a caregiver. Let’s put on our own oxygen masks first!
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Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.