Caring for a loved one can be meaningful and rewarding, but also physically and mentally exhausting. You may feel overwhelmed and potentially guilty about being burned out.
The work of a caregiver requires a great deal of sacrifice, which may lead to a belief that you can’t take a break — or even that you don’t deserve one. That’s not true. As much as the work of a caregiver matters, you still deserve to feel happy, to rest, and to thrive.
Burnout can be sneaky, and you may not recognize it until it undermines your health and well-being. Knowing the stages of caregiver burnout can help you develop a better plan for managing symptoms and asking for the help you need.
What Is Caregiver Burnout?
Each of us only has so much to give. Our physical health, mental well-being, social support, financial resources, commitments, and numerous other factors determine how much we can contribute. For example, a person in poor physical health may lack the stamina to provide intensive daily care, whereas financial stress may constrain another person’s caregiving abilities.
Caregiver burnout occurs when the care you provide exceeds your resources. This produces feelings of physical, emotional, and intellectual exhaustion that tend to become steadily worse over time. Burnout doesn’t go away without a change in the demands or in the resources available to meet them.
Burnout is common. A 2021 study found that about one in seven caregivers for people living with dementia experience clinically significant burnout. A 2022 analysis found that at least half of caregivers report symptoms of depression, and one in three have clinically diagnosable major depression.
Burnout is not your fault. It’s the inevitable response to giving too much when you cannot access the resources to replenish your own well-being. Despite this, many caregivers feel guilty about their burnout. They worry that it signals a lack of care or concern, when the reality is that burnout is the product of high commitment and care. If you’re feeling burned out, it’s because your love caused you to push yourself to the breaking point.
Some of the biggest risk factors for burnout include:
- Unclear requirements: Sometimes, your loved one’s needs aren’t clear. Maybe there are family conflicts over caregiving needs, or maybe your loved one alternates between accepting and rejecting care. This makes it harder to see the value of your work, undermining any feeling of reward you might otherwise gain.
- Unrealistic expectations: No one can single-handedly provide 24/7 care or meet every emotional need of another human being. If your goal is to do it all on your own, you risk burnout.
- Lack of downtime: Everyone needs a break. Without adequate downtime — including time for fun things that might feel unproductive — burnout becomes almost inevitable.
- High-stakes caregiving: If your loved one is too dependent on you, your emotional reserves will likely become exhausted. When the choice is between providing care or your loved one suffering (or when it seems like this is the only choice), the chance of burnout is high.
What Are the Stages of Caregiver Burnout?
Caregiver burnout does not happen immediately and tends to escalate with time. Knowing the stages of caregiver burnout is critical to seeking help, developing a more realistic care plan, and finding meaning in caregiving — without sacrificing yourself.
Stage 1: Honeymoon Period
Caregiving often begins with high hopes. For the first 16-18 months, you may aspire to do everything — and earnestly believe you can. You might try to put your loved one on a special diet, cure everything that ails them, and become an expert on their health. You might feel a renewed sense of connection with them or hope to use caregiving to heal the wounds of the past. For a while, caregiving may feel rewarding and maybe even exciting.
As you settle into this new routine, the excitement may wear off. Disappointments may replace your earlier hopes. You may find that no amount of caregiving can “cure” your loved one’s challenges, and you may experience other difficulties, such as financial setbacks or conflicts with other family members about caregiving. You may find that your resources begin to feel thinner. Fatigue sets in as the days and weeks pass.
Stage 2: Increased Caregiving Challenges
As the challenges of caregiving become more pronounced, without any additional resources to handle them, you may begin to feel overwhelmed and tired. Caregiving tasks may take longer to finish. A hallmark of this stage is putting in more hours but seeing fewer results, all while feeling less hopeful about your caregiving work.
Some people develop depression or anxiety. You might occasionally feel sick or frustrated. You may sometimes feel angry at your loved one, especially if you cannot fully meet their needs. Conflicts with others, such as doctors and family members, may also become a problem. Pressure will continue to mount, especially if you are the sole or primary caregiver. You also might develop a belief that you are the only person who can properly care for your loved one.
Stage 3: Overwhelmed by Desperation and Despair
As the pressure increases, the symptoms of burnout accelerate. By this phase, your burnout is clear to others — and likely clear to you. Some symptoms you might notice include:
- Physical exhaustion
- Feeling trapped
- Withdrawal and anxiety
- Unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drinking or overspending
- Compassion fatigue, which occurs when a person is burned out and unable to feel compassion for the person for whom they care
How to Recover from Caregiver Burnout
Recovering from caregiver burnout requires building more resources so you can better cope with the demands of caregiving. In some cases, the demands are unreasonable, and a single person can’t possibly meet them. So the solution may also include finding others who can take on some responsibility. Burnout takes time to develop, and so does recovery.
Caregiving is a relationship. Both people in the relationship matter. You cannot provide quality care for your loved one without caring for yourself. These strategies may help:
- Practice self-care: Prioritize your own physical and mental health by receiving adequate sleep, exercising, eating nourishing food, attending regular checkups, meditating or praying, and doing something each day that you enjoy.
- Find emotional support: A network of people who care about you can help ease distress. Vent to a friend or family member. Formal support groups — both online and in person — can also be invaluable. A psychotherapist who specializes in caregiver mental health can be a helpful sounding board and fount of wisdom to help you establish boundaries and tend to your own needs.
- Take a break: Sometimes, a week off can ease stress and reset your mental state. If you provide daily care, ensure you enjoy some time off each day.
- Enlist practical help: It’s not always possible to care for yourself while providing full-time care to a loved one. Respite care can offer a short-term break. A trusted friend or family member might be able to fill in as needed — or better yet, on a recurring basis — so you can take some time off. Adult Day services offer your loved one support in an enriching environment so you can catch up on work or errands.
If your loved one’s needs feel overwhelming, full-time care in assisted living or memory support can be life-changing for both of you. Your loved one can access resources that are often unavailable at home, as well as plenty of social support and enriching programming. And you can return to being a loving family member rather than a caregiver, empowering you to invest in your own life and well-being.