According to the Department of Social Services, almost 2.65 million Australians care for someone with a chronic condition or disability. 

Family caregivers and live-in carers run a high risk of caregiver burnout and a decline in their own health and wellbeing. Carer burnout is a major challenge facing many caregivers today, as the demands of caring for a loved one’s illness, someone who is chronically ill or someone with a progressive disease such as Alzheimer’s disease can take a heavy toll on your physical, emotional and mental health. 

This blog describes caregiver burnout and explains its causes. You’ll also learn about the early warning signs of burnout and later consequences if left untreated. Finally, health care tips for preventing caregiver burnout are followed by signposts for help and support.  

What is carer burnout? 

Carer burnout is a common condition that can happen to anyone, irrespective of age or gender, who takes on a significant, long-term role in the care of another person. It’s a serious health condition that can take many forms during any stage of the caring process, affecting both you the carer and the care receiver, and it’s important to know the warning signs. 

Carers may become overstretched or feel like they are losing control because they have more tasks than they can manage. They may become overwhelmed by the emotional impact of their role, which can result in increased stress levels. Carers might become isolated from family members and friends due to their long working hours. They may miss out on social activities that are essential for a healthy lifestyle. 

Over time, carers may begin to experience symptoms of caregiver burnout, including prolonged stress, exhaustion, fatigue, lack of motivation, inability to concentrate as well as other physical or mental health issues. When caregiver burnout is left untreated, it can have very serious consequences for most caregivers physical and mental health. 

What causes caregiver burnout? 

Long-term caregiving duties place a live-in carer and family caregivers at risk of caregiver burnout due to the work required in the home, on top of other caregiving responsibilities. Several factors can cause caregiver burnout, including feeling overwhelmed due to the ongoing physical and emotional demands of caring, a lack of support from family members and friends, social isolation, watching a loved one decline due to a progressive disease and the stress caused by life changes, such as leaving employment to care for a loved one. 

A loss of income when caring for a loved one full-time can lead to serious financial problems and an inability to fund basic needs such as housing costs, utility bills, food, and clothing. All these extra pressures can lead carers to feel powerless and feel overwhelmed as they struggle to manage increased expenses in the home while income is likely to diminish. 

Carers plunged into a full-time support role without any training or professional help may also feel inadequate. When carers doubt their competence for the role, this can lead to resentment of the care recipient and lead the carer to feel guilty about these feelings or feel like they are a ‘bad person’. This elevates the risk of neglect and even abuse of the care recipient. 

What are the common signs of caregiver burnout? 

All live-in and primary carers need to know the signs and symptoms of carer burnout to help prevent caregiver burnout. The clue is in the term ‘burnout’. A carer may feel drained of energy and the internal resources required to continue caring. 

Caring requires concern about the care recipient’s wellbeing and offering support through active compassion. An erosion of concern about the care recipient is called compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is an early warning sign that better self-care is needed and perhaps a respite from the caring role for the primary caregiver. 

When carers and family caregivers begin to feel numbed and suffer emotional and mental exhaustion caused by their responsibilities, they need extra support. This support can come from a range of places, including other family members, a healthcare professional, social workers, a mental health professional, professional counseling or a caregiver support group. 

Carer Burnout Symptoms 

If a primary carer continues to struggle with compassion fatigue alone, further signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout can develop. These include caregiving stress, fatigue, low mood, emotional and physical exhaustion, anxiety, a loss of motivation, frustration, loneliness and increased irritability and anger towards others, especially the care recipient. 

If burnout progresses, it can also lead to reduced attention to the carer’s own personal care needs and well being, such as grooming, maintaining a healthy diet and hygiene standards, and decreased interest in previously enjoyable activities like exercising, socialising with friends, watching TV or reading. 

Physical symptoms may include frequent headaches, back pain, gastrointestinal issues, interrupted sleep patterns and insomnia. Carers may become dehydrated and experience decreased appetite and weight loss. Long day-to-day responsibilities and unrealistic expectations can lead to reduced quality and quantity of sleep. Carers may become less sharp in their thinking and decision-making skills due to poor concentration. Disorganisation can result from a gradual decline into cognitive impairment due to chronic burnout. 

Finally, carer burnout can lead to increased alcohol consumption, binge or stress eating, and even drug abuse. A loss of identity can also occur as the caring role takes over most aspects of a carer’s life. At this stage, a carer can experience symptoms of depression, which may put the care recipient at risk of neglect. 

Tips for preventing carer burnout and stress 

There are several things that a carer can do to prevent burnout and help to minimize the caregiver burden, helping them to become a better caregiver. If you’re reading this because you are a live-in carer or family caregiver, try the following: 

  • It’s crucial to set aside time for yourself, even if you are busy caring for someone else. Remember that taking care of your health and your own needs is not a luxury; it’s an absolute necessity for caregivers to stay healthy and manage stress. 
  • Make sure you have a trustworthy person to confide in, such as a relative, family member, friend, or neighbour, to discuss your concerns and frustrations. 
  • Ensure you eat regular healthy meals to sustain energy levels. 
  • Stay hydrated. 
  • Try to get outside for a short time every day for some light exercise, fresh air, and regular breaks, to improve your mental and physical health. 
  • Consider taking up relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing or guided meditation, to manage caregiver stress, compassion fatigue and improve your mental health. There are lots of free resources at Beyond Blue to help relieve stress and to connect you with mental health professionals. 

Where can caregivers turn for help and support for their own health? 

There are plenty of caregiver support services, caregiver support groups and local resources around that provide caregivers with respite, so search for them early in your caring role before any health problems or compassion fatigue arises. You can look for a carer support group at local libraries or churches or by calling social services and asking how they can help live-in carers. 

Support groups will be able to refer you to home health services and respite care services that give many caregivers a break and help caregivers recharge. Respite care and respite carers offer temporary in-home care for a few hours a day, while more specialist respite care services might provide nursing services and private care aides for loved one’s who are acutely ill. They may also offer short stays for care recipients in assisted living facilities or nursing homes. 

For further signposts, wellness tips and support group information, take a look at Carer and Community Support or the Australian government’s Carer Gateway. These online helpful resources will inform you about the local support services available for those in the caregiving role. 

Southcare’s caring hands can help with carer burnout too, contact us for more information.