As the boomer generation continues to age, the sandwich generation — people in their 30s or 40s who are bringing up their own children while also caring for aging parents — is becoming increasingly responsible for caregiving.
Almost half (47%) of adults in their 40s or 50s have a parent age 65+ whom they are caring for, while also raising a young child or supporting a grown child. What’s more, 32% of the sandwich generation has made financial sacrifices due to caregiving — not to mention the mental and physical load that caregiving places on their own health.
These sacrifices and responsibilities put caregivers at risk for caregiver fatigue. Experiencing burnout as a caregiver can have a serious impact on your own health and wellbeing. Here’s what to know about recognizing and preventing caregiver fatigue.
What Is Caregiver Fatigue?
Caregiver fatigue (also called caregiver burnout) is defined as a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion in caregivers.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, some of the biggest causes of caregiver burnout include:
- Emotional demands
- Overwhelming workload
- Role ambiguity, or being unsure of what you’re responsible for
- Conflicting policies of caregiving
- Lack of policy
If you are a caregiver, you might struggle to separate your caregiving role from your other relationships; deal with unreasonable demands from other family members or from yourself; or feel a lack of control as you try to coordinate your loved one’s care.
Caregivers also deal with a large mental load — in other words, the cognitive effort involved in managing caregiving along with everything else you’re responsible for in life (such as other relationships, a household, or a career). These responsibilities weigh on your mind, affecting you as “invisible labor” even when you aren’t actively working on them.
The Impact of Caregiver Fatigue and Mental Load
Caregivers provide a massive amount of unpaid and often unrecognized work. Statistics show that in 2021, about 38 million family caregivers provided approximately $600 billion of unpaid labor and contributions. These 36 billion hours of care can easily have a detrimental impact on the caregiver’s own health and wellbeing.
Blue Cross Blue Shield discovered that out of its 6.7 million members who acted as caregivers, these people saw a 26% greater impact of health conditions that could lower their overall health.
It’s no surprise that caregivers can struggle with feelings of stress, isolation, and loneliness. 57% of caregivers report experiencing clinically significant levels of stress, anxiety, or depression. An additional survey from the CDC showed that unpaid caregivers had five times the odds of adverse mental health symptoms. And unfortunately, many of them turn to unhealthy patterns of food, medication, or alcohol to cope.
Physical and mental health aren’t the only ways caregivers can be affected. Their finances often take a hit, too. One in five caregivers report experiencing high financial strain as a result of providing care. Many have used up their personal short-term or long-term savings to pay for other things. One in four caregivers have taken on additional debt, while others have borrowed money or been unable to pay their bills — on time, or at all. Some caregivers have had to find a job (or a second job) or put off retirement.
How to Recognize Caregiver Fatigue and Mental Load
It’s clear that caregiver fatigue is a serious issue. How can you keep an eye out to determine whether it’s happening to you?
Symptoms of caregiver burnout often mimic symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression. According to the Cleveland Clinic, they may include:
- Withdrawing from friends, family, and other loved ones
- Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Feeling blue, irritable, hopeless, and helpless
- Changes in appetite, weight, or both
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Getting sick more often
- Feelings of wanting to hurt yourself or the person for whom you are caring
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
Caregiver fatigue or burnout can look very similar to depression. You might feel numb and emotionless, or panic because it feels like you can’t change your situation.
It’s also helpful to realize that certain caregivers are more at risk for burnout. The Mayo Clinic states that risk factors for caregiver stress include:
- Being female
- Having fewer years of formal education
- Living with the person you are caring for
- Social isolation
- Having depression
- Financial difficulties
- Higher number of hours spent caregiving
- Lack of coping skills and difficulty solving problems
- Lack of choice in being a caregiver
How to Cope With Caregiver Fatigue and Mental Load
Even if you aren’t currently experiencing caregiver fatigue, you should take steps to prevent this burnout from coming on. You can access caregiver support resources online. Other ways to cope include:
- Be willing to accept help
- Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t
- Set realistic goals
- Connect with your community
- Join a support group
- Prioritize socializing, your personal health, and time for yourself
- See your doctor and other providers regularly
At the end of the day, you can’t care for someone else effectively if you aren’t also caring for yourself. Meeting your own needs is the best way to prevent caregiver fatigue or burnout and help you provide the best care possible.