A caregiver's tale that all need to read

My friend Barb is one of the most generous people I have ever known. She has always been the friend I could rely on and has always been someone who was happy to take on another project or another volunteer job if she knew it could make a difference.

Two years ago her husband Peter was diagnosed with terminal cancer – we thought he only had three months left, but by the gift of some miracle, he keeps on hanging on. Because of this, Barb has been his full-time carer. Even though he remains in an uncertain limbo defying medical knowledge, they spend every moment together in case tomorrow isn’t so bright.

Barb has put her time and love into keeping Peter happy and comfortable. But two weeks ago something happened, and I can’t believe I didn’t see the signs. She had a breakdown. Firstly it was physical; she fainted while doing the grocery shopping. She didn’t let it stop her, but three days later she couldn’t get out of bed. She was crying, but she didn’t know why she was exhausted, but she couldn’t sleep. She had gone into a limbo just as bad as Peter’s.

She had caregiver burnout, and as someone who saw her every three days, I am disappointed that I didn’t understand what it was or see the very clear signs.

Caregiver burnout is an increasingly common condition. The average age of a caregiver is 63 according to a Gallup survey; an age when your body begins to stop handling stress as well as it once could. Caregiver burnout occurs when the additional stress caregivers take on begins to take a significant toll on their own health and behaviours. Caregiving is a difficult challenge – it is chronic, ongoing and often it has no end date.

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The result of caregiver burnout are diverse – but they are all significantly detrimental to the carer. Emotional issues like depression and anxiety can arise from the stress, physical problems like high blood pressure, heart disease and a low immune system leading to other problems can all occur as a direct result of caregiver burnout.

The problem I have with Barb is that I didn’t once notice that so many of the symptoms were already present – I just passed them off as unusual or different behaviours that were totally normal. But the fact that they were occurring all together is why it was so bad.

She stopped eating regularly and claimed, “she didn’t have time” to sit down and eat a proper meal often enough. She didn’t just look tired, but she was tired and talked about it so often. When we were away from Peter, and he was being looked after by another family member, she spent her time worrying and talking about the caring instead of relaxing with us.

I wanted to share my story with you all because I know that so many of you are carers or have friends and family whom you care for. I wish I had realised the symptoms in Barb before she reached her breaking point because I like to think I could have helped.

If you notice your friends and family who are caregivers with any of the following symptoms, it would be wise to try and gently intervene to relieve the pressure they feel under.

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  • They have much less energy than they once had
  • It seems like they catch every cold or flu that’s going around
  • They’re always exhausted, even after sleeping or taking a break
  • They neglect their own needs, either because they’re too busy or they don’t care anymore
  • Their life revolves around caregiving, but it gives them little satisfaction
  • They have trouble relaxing, even when help is available
  • They’re increasingly impatient and irritable with the person they’re caring for
  • They feel helpless and hopeless

Caregiver burnout is a very real problem that is starting to affect too many people. Don’t oversee the symptoms, because your loved one could be hurting.

Have you had caregiver burnout or have you had a loved one who has experienced it? What advice can you give to carers to help them manage their stress?