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Building Resilience and Avoiding Caregiver Burnout

Caregiver Exhaustion During the Pandemic

Caregiving spouse holding his smiling parnterSeven years ago, this maple tree in my backyard became ill. My tree guy said he thought it probably wouldn’t survive the fungus that had invaded. Leaves turned black as though burnt. A sun scar made an unsightly gash in the trunk. In time, the scar healed itself up. While some of the leaves still turn black, overall, the tree seems to have prevailed over the stress.

Has COVID wreaked havoc with YOUR memory? I have had trouble identifying what happened exactly WHEN during the last couple of years.

For example, what month was it when I watched the Burnout Prevention Tools for You & Your Team webinar I liked so much? This morning, I was looking for a link to that webinar. My brain guessed I had watched it in early fall, maybe? To my chagrin, I learned it was actually viewed in mid-December. Whoa! Apparently, my concept of time has been stretched like silly putty in the midst of this relentless pandemic.

That webinar, which concerns building resilience in times of stress, is what I want to write about here. So, I watched the webinar again. It’s 14 minutes long and was created by the LeadingAge organization for healthcare professionals working during the pandemic. I would argue that if you’ve been taking care of a person with dementia or you’ve had a loved one living in a dementia care community during this time, you can no doubt relate to issues of caregiver stress and burnout.

The Burnout Prevention Tools for You & Your Team webinar outlines three steps to avoiding caregiver burnout and building resilience:

  1. PAUSE. Evaluate where you have stress. How does it manifest?
  2. FIND TOOLS. Ask yourself, “What might I do at this moment to help?”
  3. PRACTICE. Do that thing. Now.

Building resilience helps us avoid caregiver exhaustion. Let’s unpack those three steps.

What To Do About Caregiver Stress and Burnout

Step 1: Pause

The webinar describes this as “taking the temperature of your stress.”

Ask yourself, “How is my stress getting to me right now?”

Is it a physical feeling – pain or exhaustion? Is it upsetting my emotions – Do I feel fear, panic, sadness? Is my stress expressed cognitively, overwhelming my ability to think straight?

Something I’ve realized about myself is that I think much more clearly in the morning. A task that feels daunting to me in the mid to late afternoon is amazingly easier and even fun the next morning. Maybe coffee is at work there… Or does stress impact my behavior – am I especially irritable, do I withdraw from others, am I overeating or abusing alcohol in order to cope?

Whatever your answer, even if it’s “all of the above,” it’s good to recognize precisely HOW your caregiver stress and burnout are affecting you. You’ll have a better handle on what TOOLS might help you deal with caregiver exhaustion.

Step 2: Find Tools

It helps to think about things that have helped you in the past, whether it’s exercise, drinking more water, taking a few deep breaths – in through the nose, like you’re smelling a rose, then blowing it out through your mouth, like you’re blowing out a candle.

Let’s try that now. It’s something you can do even while zipping around from task to task. Maybe you could even work in several breaths. That specific breathing is clinically recommended and recognized as restorative.

YOU know the most about what helps YOU cope, so identify successful strategies for avoiding caregiver burnout that you might have stopped thinking about. It might be reaching out to a particular friend, getting a hug from the person you are caring for (heck, give yourself two or three of those too, you deserve them), or taking two minutes to work on a crossword.

Step 3: Practice

Time to put your strategies into action. Here are a few practices for managing caregiver exhaustion you can try.

Movement and Exercise

Movement is a great mood changer. Put on some music and dance in your chair. March in place. Listen to classical music and conduct it. Some of you might incorporate this movement into your daily routine with your loved one. They need exercise too! Get outside when and if you can. A change of environment is sometimes just the thing for stress.

Positive Self-Talk

Self-talk is a handy tool, and guess what? This webinar assured me that it doesn’t matter whether or not we believe the self-talk; it actually helps us just to hear it!

So, go ahead! Let yourself know: “I’VE GOT THIS!”, “I KNOW I CAN DO IT!” or whatever script feels right to you.

Happy Distractions

Distraction can be useful too. Look at photos or videos that make you smile – babies, puppies, or loved ones. If you are sorely in need of a laugh, what can you access to supply that?

As you think about what tools work for YOU, just choose whatever in the moment seems easiest and most effective. Just try it. More good news: You don’t have to do it “right” and you don’t have to do it for very long.

Avoiding Caregiver Burnout One Step at a Time

When I am overwhelmed, remembering to get through something one step at a time is an effective reminder. When I feel lonely, reaching out to people in my circle of support is critical.

What do YOU do when you need help? Who can you call?

If no one comes to mind, perhaps you could get more resources in place. There are many Care Partner Support Groups that meet virtually these days. If this interests you, and your loved one lives at an Ebenezer community, ask the front desk if there is currently an active support group.

If you are caring for someone at home, call the Alzheimer’s Association’s Helpline for a listing of care partner groups that you might be able to join. By the way, you can call that number day or night if you have caregiving challenges and need input.

To Review: The 3 Steps to Managing Caregiver Exhaustion

  1. Pause – evaluate how stress is impacting you.
  2. Choose a tool. What has worked for me before? Or – what might I try that I haven’t yet tried?
  3. Practice. Just DO it.

Listen to the Burnout Prevention Tools for You & Your Team webinar. Many thanks to Leading Age for creating such a practical, streamlined resource.