Few things in life are more rewarding than caring for a loved one—being there for your aging parent usually gives back in spades. It teaches multiple lessons on love, human relationships, and what it truly means to be part of a family. Yet, being a caregiver, especially if your loved one struggles with dementia, also comes with many emotional ups and downs.
Caregivers of aging loved ones with dementia are tirelessly adapting to and exercising patience within ever-changing—and often emotionally charged—situations, something no one can fully prepare for ahead of time. Many family members struggle with burnout from the physical, mental, and emotional stress of this constant uncertainty. Fortunately, with the supportive tools and resources available throughout the Bay Area, and through some self-care practices and techniques, it’s possible to nip burnout in the bud.
Recognizing Burnout Symptoms for Dementia Caregivers
Dementia caregivers often experience an inherently high level of stress, which can be a strain on their emotional and mental energy. Burnout is a result of this heightened level of stress over an extended period of time, so being aware of the first warning signs is the best prevention.
Recognizing these signs means you can start to give yourself what you need to stay grounded and healthy—and ultimately helps you to be there for your loved one. Burnout symptoms manifest in a multitude of ways, but include mental, emotional, and physical issues.
- Sleep problems caused by worry: Many dementia caregivers are kept up at night thinking about worst-case scenarios, like their loved one wandering off somewhere, or forgetting how to get home.
- Reduced socialization: Caring for a loved one with dementia can require constant care. Often, the commitment is too much for just one person to handle alone, but if a family member has no support, their own social life may be the first thing they give up.
- Emotional fatigue: Your loved one might ask the same question repeatedly, have trouble communicating, or struggle with daily tasks—this high level of care can be emotionally tiring for a caregiver.
- Poor self-care: Caregivers experience periods that are more challenging than others due to the constantly shifting nature of dementia care. During the more stressful times, it’s easy to neglect their own exercise regime, appearance, and diet.
- Lashing out from frustration: Dementia caregivers might find themselves increasingly frustrated at things beyond their loved one’s control, such as being unable to communicate normally, forgetting simple things, or wandering into a dangerous situation—a sure sign of burnout.
Three Simple Strategies for Managing Burnout
Understanding how to mitigate the stress caused by dementia caregiving can help prevent you from slipping into burnout. While we recognize that caring for a loved one with dementia is anything but simple, these three strategies can be easily implemented to help create multiple avenues of much-needed support—and provide you with a strong foundation from which to give more, both to yourself and your aging loved one.
Remember What You Can and Can’t Control
One of the biggest challenges that dementia caregivers face is dealing with the nature of the disease—it’s difficult to see someone you love change, and have difficulty thinking and behaving normally. But, knowing you can control your response, no matter what the situation, can be empowering.
- Check in with reality: When a difficult situation with your loved one occurs, always ask yourself if they can control their frustrating behavior. It can be helpful to consciously remember that their actions are simply a result of their illness, and outside their control.
- Be compassionate with yourself: Always offer empathy and compassion to yourself as well as your loved one—you’re both doing the best you can. At the end of the day, that’s enough.
- Ask for help: When in doubt, take some well-deserved time off—especially if you’re already experiencing multiple symptoms of burnout, or feel you’re headed there. Ask a family member to pitch in, and then spend an afternoon doing something relaxing for yourself. Or, consider hiring extra help to lighten your load.
Create a Game Plan for Everyday Stress
Having a healthy strategy for staying calm during the challenging situations that arise when caring for dementia sufferers—whether they unexpectedly wandered outside, are misunderstanding something, or starting an argument—can be the difference between a peaceful resolution, or a spiral into stress.
- Practice healthy rituals: Whether it’s having built-in meditation time, practicing yoga for ten minutes a day, or setting aside a few hours each Sunday to cook nutritious meals for the week ahead, find out what works for you—and stick to it. Your routine provides structure amidst the instability that dementia brings.
- Get a stress strategy: Learn to notice your personal signs of stress, especially ones that crop up during difficult interactions with your loved one—maybe your breath quickens, your stomach constricts, or your voice gets louder. Take a few deep breaths, and a brief time out if possible. Resume what you were doing with a renewed perspective and a calmer physical state.
- Seek social connection: Being able to share what’s going on in your life, venting, and laughing together with friends can help put into perspective the challenges of dementia, so schedule in regular visits with friends and family any way you can.
Get Support from Local Resources
Familiarizing yourself with the dementia resources available in the Bay Area can bring new connections—and a great sense of comfort. Explore educational meetings on dementia, additional training for your role as a caregiver, and support groups to arm yourself with strategies and information. As they say, knowledge is power.
- Become educated on dementia: Learn all you can about your loved one’s condition, what you can expect, and how other caregivers handle similar situations. Investing in dementia-related training can also help you navigate the challenges of your role.
- Talk with other caregivers: See if there’s another dementia caregiver in your area, or online, who’s willing to share their personal experiences with you. Having examples of caregivers doing their job successfully, while staying healthy themselves, can be just the encouragement you need.
- Find community resources: Being with other families facing similar challenges can provide invaluable connections and resources. Check for your local dementia caregiver support groups, or get in touch with the Bay Area organizations listed below.
When dealing with an all-encompassing disease like dementia, it’s so important to focus on cultivating compassion for everyone involved—interacting with your loved one should be centered around love, empathy, and a positive energy exchange.
By using healthy tools to cope with stress, and by practicing good self-care, caregiving for a loved one with dementia can be a fulfilling, rewarding experience. While there will always be an element of stress involved—as with most worthwhile things in life—learning how to better manage your caregiving role can help both you, and your aging loved one, make the most of your time together.
If you want to learn how to better support a loved one with dementia, Institute on Aging offers a range of programs, services, and online resources. Connect with us today to find out more.