Caregiver Burnout – Signs and Strategies for Coping

In the midst of her most successful years as a TV executive, Jacqueline Marcell found herself bound by the responsibility of having to care for her elderly parents. Devastated and unimpressed by the available eldercare system, Marcell was forced to leave her career and sell her family home to provide 24-hour care to her parents. Her father experienced unprovoked bouts of rage and confusion, and Marcell learned firsthand of the limited assistance available to her family. This lack of support prompted Marcell to write her recent book, Elder Rage, or Take My Father…Please! Her aim was to inform the public about ‘caregiver burnout’ and how to cope with the responsibility by taking wiser steps.

Marcell’s book draws attention to the difficulties care givers face in garnering assistance through the existing medical and eldercare system. Marcell encourages readers in two primary courses of action, emphasizing the value of adult daycare and early diagnosis. Personally, she found comfort and peace by getting herself into a support group and enrolling her parents into an adult day healthcare facility. Adult daycare facilities can be great places to improve an individual’s cognitive functioning, stimulate their mind and enlighten their spirit. They also provide an opportunity for the caregivers to focus on their own needs.

Using humor to address this sensitive subject is author. Teresa Hopson-Finley who, in her new book Mom Forgot! Diary of a Caregiver, broaches the topic of caring for her elderly parents. Hopson-Finley found keeping at journal to be therapeutic and essential during the 15 years she spent caring for her ailing kin. While Alzheimer’s disease and other debilitating illnesses are no laughing matter, the book tastefully presents an anecdotal narrative spanning Hopson-Finley’s caregiving years, and offers readers suggestions of how to cope with this stressful and trying time. These suggestions include turning to faith in God, keeping a positive out look and of course, a little laughter, after all, it is the best medicine. “Despite the subject matter, the most sophisticated, serious-minded reader could find reasons to smile between the covers of this book,” states the author. While humor is indeed a coping mechanism, it is important to note the difficulty and heartache felt as caregivers watch people they love slip away.

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Not all instances of caregiving revolve around the elderly. One area that has received little attention in the past is Spinal Cord Injury (SCI). That is all beginning to change due in part to the recent book The Ghost Behind The Wheelchair, written by Lila Ridings Darnell. Her son, Scott, was injured in 1991 after a diving accident rendered him paralyzed at the age of 28. Darnell chronicled her experiences in an attempt to “serve as illumination in an otherwise dark world for others facing a simi lar injury to the one they love.” She notes, “I was eventually able to sit down and put words onto paper in the hope that another mother or father would one day find my experience helpful during their own times of learning and searching.”

Unlike many roles that we choose to take on in life, caring for our loved ones, either the elderly or the young. is not always voluntary. On the contrary, because having to care for a close relative or friend often arises from events and circumstances that are beyond our control, this may not happen at the most opportune time.

Often people agree to care for friends or family members merely because they feel they cannot deny them the help or they feel a need to prove themselves. While accepting to care full-time for a loved one is a noble deed, some would argue that it is an innate responsibility. Either way, we should carefully consider the extent of our commitment. The ability to realize one’s own limitations, to delegate responsibility to others and to reach out for support is an essential part of the commitment to caring for the people we love.

The willingness to care for a loved one may occasionally arise from a desire to self-sacrifice, as opposed to having the genuine capability for the task. In many ways, people fail to separate their own social life and personal well-being from the individuals they have chosen to look after. Unfortunately, devoting one’s self sol radically to the task can initiate the syndrome known as caregiver burnout, giving rise to symptoms such as lack of motivation, depression, anger, anxiety, lack of efficiency, emotional exhaustion and eventually more severe conditions like insomnia, headaches, backaches, cardiovascular problems and skin conditions.

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Individuals have different ways of reaching out for help and it is important for friends and relatives to realize the warning signs and to step in with compassionate advice and assistance. As with any other situation in which people find themselves bound by obligation and duty, caregiving for a loved one can be stressful, especially if the individual has to take over sole responsibility.

Fortunately, if the signs are detected promptly, helpful strategies can be used to prevent burnout. One of the most effective ways to lower stress and pressure is to talk with close friends and family members. Support groups can also be extremely beneficial in this situation. They can provide an appropriate place to work through fear, frustration, anger and grief. People who experience similar life experiences can be an incredible source of support for one another simply because of their ability to empathize.

Caregivers must also learn to separate their own person al life from the caregiving role they have taken on. They should maintain a healthy life outside of the responsibility of caring for a loved one by developing hobbies and skills or taking classes that can provide intellectual stimulation and personal growth. Relaxation outlets such as exercise, music, meditation, taking walks, gardening or reading are positive ways to vent one’s frustrations. Research indicates that situations of increased stress can lead to many unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking, overeating and unwise drug use. It is essential that a caregiver maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

In most cases, even the best caregiving will not effect the outcome of an illness. Instead of fretting over the powerlessness to cure what is incurable, one should draw strength and comfort from what can be done. While we may be unable to alter the outcome, we can provide understanding, compassion, dignity and love.

Marcell has set forth on a quest to change the eldercare laws, and suggests there be multiple alternatives for people who care for their loved ones, in order to prevent caregiver burnout. Marcell declares with a smile, “I have an ulterior motive, I don’t have children-so I’ve got to help straighten things out before I get old!”

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By Niloo E. Sarabi

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