3 ways caregivers cope with burnout

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Scott didn’t want to see his mother largely as a relentless leader. When he treated her that way, sighing lightly or staring as he went through his last to-do list, she felt hurt, then he felt guilty. So how can he and other emotionally exhausted caregivers replenish themselves and rekindle their enthusiasm for caregiving? Here are some ideas.

Prioritize connection over task completion

It’s true that family caregivers typically have so many caregiving tasks – from paying bills and taking drugs to dressing and grooming – that they are eager to complete them every day. But being ‘doers’ all the time can have a strangely paradoxical effect: rather than putting the person they’re caring for in the center of their attention, ticking off tasks on a list can in itself become a consuming concern. Caregivers become masters of managing household chores, but less emotionally engaged with the person for whom they are sacrificing their time and energy.

As rewarding as it is to cross tasks off a list, psychologists believe that connecting with others on an emotional level is ultimately more rewarding. Imagine skipping tasks one day – or at least limiting the day’s work to just the most crucial aspects – and instead spending a morning working together on a family tree or oral family history. Or consider having an open-hearted conversation about current circumstances, however difficult they may be, including the anger, worries, and hopes of a loved one. In the long run, it will not be about performing tasks that caregivers will remember when they one day remember caregiving. It will be those moments of conversation and connection, where they will feel touched and renewed.

Take the time to feel your own sadness

Sometimes caregivers engage in caregiving tasks for their own emotional reasons: by doing things mechanically all the time, they are less likely to feel their emotional reactions to what is going on. And what is the most common reaction? Often, it is “the deep sadness” that has come to witness the decline of a loved one. Connecting with and tolerating your own grief can be a prerequisite for stepping back from tasks and creating emotionally fulfilling moments with those receiving care whose time is short.

Asking for help in return

One of the main reasons caregiving is so exhausting is that caregivers give and give, but can’t or won’t take from the care recipient. What might have been more of a two-way relationship in the past – for example, a mother and son taking care of each other in different ways – becomes unbalanced. Whenever possible (and, admittedly, this is not always the case), caregivers should ask care recipients to give back to them.

For example, when his mother gives him her to-do list, Scott can give him hers. His list may include things like “Please call the pharmacy to make sure your meds are ready before I drive to collect them” and “Can I handle a job issue by you to get your opinion?” He’ll be less likely to feel exhausted by his mother over time if he receives even small gestures of help – and love – from her in return.

Barry J. Jacobs is a clinical psychologist, family therapist, and member of the AARP Care Advisory Committee.


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