Taking care of an ill or injured family member can be an all-consuming task. The duties, expectations, and pressures can be so demanding, in fact, that they frequently take a toll on health of caregivers. According to a 2020 survey by The National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP, 23 percent of caregivers said that their duties have made their health worse, and 21 percent report their health as fair to poor.

To Americans who identify as family caregivers—that’s one in five adults, according to AARP—those numbers likely come as no surprise. Many people who care for others will put the health of their loved ones first, while their own mental and physical health goes on the back burner. “Stressed caregivers may experience fatigue, anxiety and depression,” says the Cleveland Clinic. That, in turn, can lead to something called “caregiver burnout,” which is a state of mental and physical exhaustion.

To try and avoid burnout, it’s important for caregivers to prioritize their own health, even if it’s challenging to do so. Because if they’re not doing a good job caring for themselves, they’re going to struggle with caring for someone else. By taking the following steps, caregivers can make proactive efforts to avoid burnout and be their best selves.

  1. Find a professional to talk to. Caring for a person who is ill may be one of the biggest challenges you’ll face. Bearing witness to a person’s struggles, and the moods that accompany those struggles can be bleak. The lack of control can be frustrating, and dredge up feelings of guilt. It can also be confusing to understand what your role is—whether you’re a child, or parent, or spouse—while coming to terms with providing care. A mental health professional can help you process what you’re experiencing and feeling, and offer tools to manage your stress while prioritizing your own well-being. Thanks to technology, you don’t even have to leave the comfort and convenience of your home for a therapy appointment. Find a therapist who offers telehealth sessions, so that you can fit them more easily into an already busy schedule.
  2. Surround yourself with support. Whatever feelings you’re feeling—anger, sadness, anxiety, confusion—you’re certainly not alone. Support groups—which take place in person, online and over the phone—bring people together so that they can sympathize, empathize, share advice, commiserate, vent and listen. For many participants, it can feel more comfortable to talk about their feelings with others who have shared experiences, rather than with their own friends and family. You can find support groups on different social media platforms, through local medical centers and hospitals, and via community centers, senior centers and non-profit organizations. Our Resources for Caregivers page is a good place to start your search.
  3. Use respite care. The idea of entrusting the care of your loved one to a stranger may sound nerve-wracking, but there’s a reason that these services exist: to help caregivers like yourself. Educate yourself on what’s available in your community. It’s common to find in-home offerings, as well as short-term care at adult centers and even nursing homes. Your healthcare provider may be a good resource on where to look for respite care; and people in your support group may have insights, too.
  4. Consider taking a break from other duties. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by balancing a job and other obligations with caregiver duties, check with your employer about taking a leave of absence. The Family and Medical Leave Act allows eligible employees to take a 12-week leave in a calendar year, although, unfortunately it’s unpaid; other offerings may be available depending on where you work. In addition, consider what other roles in your life might be overwhelming. Now might be a good time to step away from activities that feel like chores, so that you can focus your attention on yourself and your care partner.
  5. Ask for (and accept) help from friends and family. People genuinely want to help other people, but sometimes they don’t know what to do or even how to ask. Here’s where your communication skills are important. Figure out a way to communicate that you need help. Maybe that’s telling a good friend, who can be the point of contact for letting others know; perhaps it’s nudging other family members to step up; maybe you belong to a church or social group that isn’t aware you’re struggling. It can be hard to speak up, but doing so can remove some of your burdens, while also engaging others in a meaningful way.  
  6. Take care of yourself. It’s worth repeating: if you’re not doing a good job caring for yourself, it’s going to be even more challenging to be there for others. It’s critical that you prioritize your own health—physical as well as mental. To do that, it’s important to eat healthy foods, stay active, get enough sleep and find ways to relieve stress. You also need to keep up with your own medical checkups, vaccinations and screenings. And be sure to let your doctor know that you’re a caregiver; he or she may have some personalized advice that could help.
  7. Know the signs of caregiver burnout, and get help. Burnout can simmer below the surface; it can also mask itself as a number of other feelings. The Cleveland Clinic lists the following symptoms of caregiver burnout:
    – Withdrawing from friends and friends
    – Losing interest in activities that once brought joy
    – Feeling sad, blue, irritable, hopeless and helpless
    – Experiencing changes in your appetite and/or weight
    – Experiencing changes in your sleep patterns
    – Becoming ill more frequently
    – Feeling a desire to hurt yourself or the person in your care
    – Irritability
    – Exhaustion–both physical and emotional

Caring for a loved one is an exercise in endurance, requiring not only physical stamina but mental as well. Just as a runner trains for a marathon, a caregiver must prepare and make strategic decisions that will help them power through. Otherwise, they risk falling physically ill, or becoming anxious, depressed or worse.

It’s not something to face alone. By seeking out help, you can forge important connections—both with mental health professionals and others in the community who are living similar experiences—and find support, strength and even value in this phase of your life, as challenging as it may be.