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I'm Overwhelmed, and I May Be Experiencing Caregiver Burnout. Help!

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Updated January 27, 2011

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Question: I'm Overwhelmed, and I May Be Experiencing Caregiver Burnout. Help!
"Mother has Alzheimer's and I am her sole caregiver. She is 87, no Medicare or Medicaid, so no help from anybody. I have 9- and 7 year-old grandchildren living with my husband and me. My stress level is so high that some days I drink too much and I'm also on pain pills for my bones but tend to overtake them as they give me a bit of an "up." I want to quit all of it but I can't. My mother doesn't want anybody but me with her. I would love to have some retirement time with my husband but I don't see us on our own for many years to come. I really don't know what to do. Sometimes I think of dying. Any suggestions?"
Answer: You are under a great deal of stress, which may be leading to caregiver burnout, and it's more than anyone should have to handle alone. I want you to be sure you're not moving into depression or in danger of developing an addiction. The fact that you mentioned that you are drinking more than usual, taking more medication than you need, and sometimes think of dying really concerns me. You are giving so much to others, and I want to be sure you're taken care of as well. Given this, it is essential that you get an evaluation by a qualified mental health or medical professional.

That said, I have some suggestions to try in conjunction with help from a counselor or therapist to help head off caregiver burnout. I would suggest that you see where you can minimize your workload. Your mother wants nobody else with her but you, but she may not realize that you need to take care of yourself, too, and that if you have help taking care of her, it may increase your ability to take care of yourself, which will enable you to have more stamina to care for her. Also, your grandchildren need you, and your marriage needs to remain strong, so if you are able to find some practical help with your mother, everyone should benefit. Often people can find support from services for seniors through their religious communities and in other places in the local community.

It's also vital that you build some stress management strategies into your day and carve out a little time for yourself. This may sound unrealistic when you're already pushed to your limit, but there are several stress relievers that are quick, and those that take a few minutes out of your schedule can supply you with enough of a mental and emotional break that you might have more energy to meet everyone's needs -- including your own.

Here are some suggestions to try:

Breathing Exercises

Breathing is one of my favorite stress relief strategies, as it can be done anytime, anywhere, and is free. You can utilize your stress relief breathing even as you're dealing with stressors throughout your day, and minimize the effects of chronic stress. Here's more about the benefits of breathing exercises, and a breathing exercise to try.

Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation have been proven to bring many health benefits and relieve stress. Meditation takes some time on a regular basis, but can have powerful results -- it can not only relieve stress that you're feeling in the moment, but can help you to become less reactive to stress you experience in the future. Mindfulness is a way of bringing meditation into your daily life, and can be a good solution for those who feel they have no time for meditation. Read more about meditation and mindfulness here.

Exercise

Getting regular exercise is a wonderful way to take care of yourself and keep stress levels low. Not only does it keep you fit and in shape, but exercise can supply a break from your stress, an outlet for frustrations, can get you into a meditative state, and help metabolize your body's stress hormones, thereby minimizing the effects of chronic stress. Here's some more on the benefits of exercise, and here are some exercises for busy people.

Social Support

Social support has been linked not only to the relief of stress, but to better health, greater longevity, and increased life satisfaction, among other benefits. Having a little support can be crucial in getting through a crisis or managing long-term stress, like what you're facing. Getting practical support -- help with things like meals and caregiving tasks -- can free up time and energy (thus relieving feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed), while getting emotional support can help you relieve emotional stress. Talking to friends and family and asking for help, utilizing available services in your community, getting help from online and in-person support groups, and talking to a counselor, therapist, or even life coach or doctor are all ways of getting social support. If you're feeling suicidal or seriously overwhelmed, you can call a crisis hotline; try 1-800-784-2433 or 1-800-273-8255 in the United States.

Here are more general suggestions for stress relief for caregivers.

Take care, and please let us know how you're doing.

Sources:
Rao K, Apte M, Subbakrishna DK. Coping and Subjective Wellbeing in Women with Multiple Roles. The International Journal of Social Psychiatry September 2003.

Rimmele U, Seiler R, Marti B, Wirtz PH, Ehlert U, Heinrichs M. The level of physical activity affects adrenal and cardiovascular reactivity to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. October 13, 2008.
Van Dixhoorn, Jan. Whole-Body Breathing: A Systems Perspective on Respiratory Retraining. In Lehrer, Paul; Woolfolk, Robert; Sime, Wesley. Principles and Practice of Stress Management, Third Edition. (pp. 291-332). New York, New York: The Guilford Press.

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