Caregivers are often experts on taking care of their loved ones. But what about taking care of themselves?
That’s the question 21-year-old Abigail Caron asked over the summer, as she accompanied HopeHealth’s hospice and palliative teams on daily visits with patients and caregivers. Abby is a nursing student at the University of Rhode Island, and was completing the Susan Flynn Palliative Care Nursing Fellowship, a clinical training and practice program created in partnership with HopeHealth.
As she learned the ins and outs of this special field, she put fresh eyes on a common challenge: How to stop caregiver burnout.
Here’s what she discovered.
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What causes caregiver burnout?
For her fellowship’s research component, Abby explored the point at which caregiving stress crosses over into burnout. She noticed three themes.
“In nursing, we talk a lot about the classic triad symptoms of a disease. So I made a triangle of the key concepts of what leads to burnout — the classic triad of burnout,” Abby says.
Three causes of caregiver burnout
- Self-perception: Whether or not you get satisfaction from caregiving changes how it affects you mentally. “Not everyone put in the position to give care wants to. Do you find caregiving rewarding? Or is it a job you didn’t choose?” says Abby.
- Strain: As a result of caregiving’s many demands, you may notice effects on your physical well-being. “You’re not sleeping well, you’re not eating well, you’re not taking care of yourself,” says Abby.
- Time passed: The further your loved one’s illness progresses, the more vulnerable you may be to burnout. “Burnout doesn’t just happen over one night,” says Abby. “Over time, the burden of care grows.”
In one of her home visits with a HopeHealth nurse, Abby met a son who was struggling with all three elements of burnout. His stress had gone beyond his breaking point, and he felt overwhelmed by anger.
“That snapping point was scary, for this caregiver and his mother,” says Abby. “So I created I plan for what to do when burnout reaches its tipping point.”
When you’re at a breaking point, B.U.R.N. I.T.
In moments of extreme stress, it’s all but impossible to think clearly. That certainly includes the experience of caregiver burnout, which can show up as anger, sadness or sheer exhaustion. If you’re approaching a breaking point — or are already there — it helps to have a strategy in place.
Abby’s plan: Think of the phrase “Burn it.”
- B: Be right back. “Leave the situation if it’s too much,” says Abby. “Find a way to go and clear your head.” For many families, this means enlisting an organization like HopeHealth to come to the house regularly, building in opportunities for a break.
- U: Uber. When you’re able to, physically remove yourself from the caregiving setting — whether that’s by hopping in an Uber or taking a walk around the block. “Not only do family caregivers need to take a break, they need to leave the situation temporarily. The change of environment will stimulate relaxation and liberty,” says Abby.
- R: Remember. Remember what you have done so far, and give yourself credit and appreciation. “It’s all about bringing satisfaction back to caregiving,” says Abby.
- N: Need help. Tell other people you need help. This is often the hardest piece of advice for caregivers, but it’s crucial. Lean on organizations like HopeHealth, and ask friends and family to take on errands or sit with your loved one for a few hours.
- I: It’s okay. “It’s okay to say yes when others offer help,” says Abby. Just as you have to ask for help, you have to be ready to receive it too. It can be the difference between feeling burnt out versus in control — which will help your loved one’s quality of life too.
- T: Talk to me. “Teams like HopeHealth need caregivers to talk with them,” says Abby. It may not be easy to open up about what you’re going through, but it’s often the most direct line to the support you and your family need. “The more you’re open and honest, the more stress your team is able to alleviate for you,” says Abby.
> Related: 7 common myths about palliative care.
If you’re worried about caregiver burnout, lean on your palliative or hospice team.
When all else fails, remember two things: “Take space, and ask for help,” says Abby.
Through her fellowship, she saw how palliative and hospice teams help caregivers do just that.
“Caregivers often feel like they have to be on top of everything, and have everything in control. I saw them be able to relinquish some of that stress thanks to their HopeHealth team,” says Abby. “The care is great. Everyone is so experienced and has a personal connection to the work. My experience was fantastic.”