Caregiver Fatigue: 10 Signs of Caring Too Much

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Compassion fatigue -- a.k.a. caregiver burnout -- is what happens when a well-intentioned caregiver crosses a hard-to-see line from One-Who-Helps to One-Who-Needs-Help. And it can happen to anyone. It happens precisely because you care so much.

Are you at risk of caring "too much"? Here are ten warning signs:

  1. You use words like "always" and "never" with regard to caregiving.
    Beware falling into absolutes: "I promised Mom we'd never put her in a nursing home." "I'm sorry I can't go to lunch because I always feed Sam by myself."

    Being overly rigid can put you at risk for burnout.

    SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

  2. Your friends seem to have stopped calling.
    You may be feeling isolated or annoyed that your old circle no longer seems to check up on you and how you're faring. But is it possible that you've turned them down so often because of your caregiving duties, or that caregiving concerns so dominate your life and conversation, that they got the message you're just not interested in them?

    A social life is a two-way street.

  3. The last time you felt happy was. . . uh. . . um. . . let's see. . . Nobody ever said looking after a sick or aging loved one was a romp in a field of wildflowers. But if your everyday life has lost even its grace notes, so that you find no pleasure in it, you're at risk.

    Every day needs at least one happy petal or two.

    SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

  4. Everyone assumes you'll step forward; nobody asks.
    Have you become the default go-to girl (or guy) in your family? When the sick person is your spouse, this is logical. (Even then, you need a support system to pitch in.) But it's a different matter when the family member being cared for is a parent, grandparent, or other relative -- and the entire burden of responsibility seems to have settled on your shoulders whether you've volunteered or not.

    As caregiving expert Carol O'Dell is fond of saying, "People take as much advantage of you as you let them."

  5. You're overweight or out of shape.
    True, it may not be your caregiving that's to blame. We could sit around and make a long list of culprits for poor health that includes everything from our car culture to a conspiracy of corn syrup to unfortunate genes. But the fact remains that poor self-care is a big red flag for caregiver burnout. Being selflessly focused on others by definition means you're not focused on yourself. And yet you need to be the #1 person you look after, in order to be shipshape (or at least functional!) to look after others.

    If you don't like what you see when you look in the mirror (or sit listening to the doctor's concern in the exam room), give yourself permission to be selfish.

  6. You can't remember the last time you took a vacation. Vacations are really hard when you have a disabled or impaired person to consider. And not being able to even remember the last break you had is a sure sign you're due for one. It doesn't have to be three weeks in France. Start small if you must: a simple overnight at a friend's house or a local B&B. Just do something.

    To stop caregiving stress, stop caregiving sometimes.

  7. All conversations turn to caregiving.
    Maybe you remember when your kids were babies and you'd hire a babysitter -- and proceed to talk about the kids all evening? Not a great idea. Or worse, you call home to check up! If every conversation with your partner or other family members concerns one subject, it's a warning sign that topic is monopolizing your life.


  8. You have no hobbies.
    You say you have no time for hobbies? Your hobby doesn't have to be a conventional one like stamp-collecting or bird-watching. It just needs to be an outlet away from caregiving. Reading trashy novels uninterrupted, taking up knitting, joining a book club, taking adult ed courses, being a matinee-movie addict, or enjoying your children and grandchildren all count, too "“ anything that takes you away from caregiving for bursts of time.

    Bonus points if it takes you out of the house, too.

  9. You can't sleep through the night.
    Two common causes: You're up tending to a sick person (or Alzheimer's wanderer, or someone else who gets by on just a few hours of sleep a night) or you're sick with stress or a physical problem yourself. A sleepless night or two go with the territory of caregiving -- but if it's become your lifestyle, it's a problem you need to correct.

    Sleep isn't optional!

  10. You dread waking up in the morning.
    We all have this experience, usually when we're in the midst of a health crisis that seems like a bad dream (but isn't). Health nightmares can go on for years, unfortunately. But when the crisis has passed and you've sunk into a new routine "“ and you still feel heavy-hearted and hopeless, your body is crying out for you to enlist some support.

    Nobody "“ not even the most well-intentioned, big-hearted, and selfless among us -- is meant to endure a tough situation all alone, day after day, year after year.

If three or more of these warning signs are flashing for you, what can you do? Start here:

  • Use the local senior care directory to free up time for you.
  • Find a support group of like-situationed others to vent to.
  • Congratulate yourself for having taken the first step toward improving the situation: Realizing the problem, and deciding you're worth a fix.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

about 1 year, said...

I don't think there's been a time period in my life when I wasn't a caregiver. I had an alcoholic father and a terminally ill mother during my tweens and teens. I was groomed to be a caregiver. I then had kids, one with an illness and disability. I also seem to attract a few needy friends here and there. Once my adult daughter had my grandson, she guild me into watching him full-time while she and my son-in-law work. I've had only about 10 months of freedom from caregiving in adulthood and during that time I lost weight, got in great shape and discovered my talents. Babysitting has once again sucked most of that away from me. I'm watching him 6, 12 hour days per week. I have no time for myself or for fun. It's much harder to go back to caregiving once you've finally gotten to care for yourself. I love my grandson but would prefer a grandmother relationship rather than a 2nd mom relationship. Now my cat is very sick and I can't easily get away from my baby grandson to take proper care of her. Its day's like today that I'd love to run away!

over 1 year, said...

damm, I've always felt I care too much about people...always...but I also felt like I'm taking care of myself whilst doing this. But reading through this and when the realization hits you; man its deep and pain full....

over 1 year, said...

Being the sole carer for a disabled mother I relate to the points made. Siblings either lived too far and preferred the non hands on approach or simply did not want to now. Not only was the role becoming stressful d at Ives unbearable but the resentment towards siblings grew. Unfortunately the selfish streak in my mother came out she appreciated nothing. I utility my life on hold for AA decade and finacial suffered then physically finally my emotional health took a hard knock. It broke my heart to put a wall up but I was having a breakdown and they did not care. Now I do what's needed no more and when finacince permit I will move on.

almost 2 years, said...

Gloomy days suck!

over 2 years, said...

No caregive support group nearby! I rely on online support!!

over 2 years, said...

Great tips. Thanks.

over 2 years, said...

I really appreciate all 10 comments and can relate to most of them

over 2 years, said...

Excellent article and advice. My wife and I were caregivers for three respected and loved parents and ... well, I will spare you the details and the stressors (although "strain" is a better word than "stress" because it involves how we respond to the stress). I had every single one of the symptoms you described, and none of them had a solution that was 100% successful -- "success" meant "a less-bad feeling" and rarely "a good-feeling," if you know what I mean. I've paid my dues and, at the risk of seeming insensitive, I'd like to respectfully point out that every single one of the "Ten Signs" has one thing in common, and that is, they all center around "Me." Sure, caring for someone seems unselfish thing to do -- and it can be -- but relating the difficulty of any situation to "how it makes ME feel" indicates something we should note. I can't give an easy answer to this one but it helped me to ask myself, "how are THEY feeling?" more often than "how am I feeling?", to keep telling myself that this was just an impression, and to carefully observe what was going on with as much mindfulness as I could muster. I think we can all learn from people like Louis Zamperini, Mother Theresa, etc. etc. who had it much worse than I did and still came out well. They had to reach within themselves and find the answer, and we did too. I think we can all look at other times in our lives when we were sleep deprived and overworked and needed a vacation and felt great pity for ourselves and the like, and I'll bet we came through OK. If it isn't making you a better person maybe it's time to try something different. Caring for our three parents was not done perfectly or cheerily, but we were proud of what we did because we did it for them, not for us. Sorry it may seem insensitive, but when I was going through all that and feeling great pity for myself, I wish someone had said it to me.

over 2 years, said...

I am thankful for this information. At the beginning of my caregiving lifestyle, I knew that I was getting into a lifestyle change, because of my work experience as a CNA and a HHA. I am prepared for the mental and emotional challenges. I was able to understand how much easier taking care of one person rather than the 9-12,five days a week. The true blessing came by way of my mother's doctors; they both explained that as long as my mom has been tended to for the day, leave her alone, that it would be unrealistic to be at her every beck and call. Just like when I worked as a CNA, patients call lights going off did not mean I had to run, it meant, I'll get there after serving the current patient. Summing it uo; I take frequent breaks just like I did at work. I schedule tasks in order to have a life. I take time for myself and don't stress anymore.

almost 3 years, said...

I can relate to many of the points noted in this article. Not that this helps anyone, but thanks anyhow.

almost 3 years, said...

I guess I'm in pretty bad shape after reading that, the answers aren't that easy with no help!!!!!!!!!!

about 3 years, said...

It's one thing to choose to be a caregiver - to have it be your profession. It's another thing to suddenly be thrown into it and unwillingly at that. Regardless of how "noble" it is, an unwilling caregiver can end up resenting their loved one for their unfortunate situation, as well as resentment on their own loss of a personal life. A dear friend is no longer to live alone. Her 30ish unmarried daughter is tasked with taking care of her. Daughter is doing her "duty" while her 2 married bothers do nothing to help. Daughter does her duty but is HEAVILY resentful - both at the brothers and at having the situation being placed ALL on her shoulders when SHE should be able to have a life and family of her own. And mom should live at least another 10-15 years, God willing, leaving daughter with NO chance for her own life or her own family. Yes, caregiving IS most definitely a noble PROFESSION for those who choose it, but it sometimes isn't so noble for family members who are stressed out and resentful, yet do their duty anyway.

about 3 years, said...

Caregiving is a noble proffession. Kindness is a primary qality for care givers. There is nothing called personal life. It is only a temporary feeling that we are not devoting enough time to family. It is only a feeling of personal guilt. Gradually one can over come. There is no need to worry.

over 3 years, said...

It's early stages for me- about 18 months, but I can readily relate to 4 of the mentioned items

over 3 years, said...

To realize that I am not alone and know I am definitely in need of a caregiver's makeover!!! And I must make a change right away. Thanks for the info.

over 3 years, said...

You make such valid points....I care for a spouse who has had Parkinson's since 1993 and for the past 10 years has needed constant care. I can handle most things but the dementia drives me crazy. I have found an outlet in doing volunteer work that can be done from home.... admin for our neighbourhood watch, efiling of tax returns for friends who have not kept up with technology, playing scrabble-type games via Facebook, following interesting people on Twitter.... The country in which I live does not provide affordable facilities for people in my husband's situation, and the worst thing is that the Parkinson's has manifested by making his feet "stick' to the ground, so that he falls if he tries to walk....the brain says go, no response from the feet... he has been almost wheelchair bound for years. His Parkinson's medication has caused orthostatic hypotension, so if he does stand up, his blood pressure drops very low. He even passes out sitting in the wheelchair. He has hallucinations; is now incontinent. He has sinus node dysfunction, has a pacemaker. I have cared for him 24/7, not because I choose to do so, but because everything else is unaffordable here. However, thanks to a facility funded by a church I am able to have a respite break twice a year which costs nothing except a donation of what you can afford. I do keep in touch with friends by email and telephone, but I intend to stop talking about the latest drama! (at the moment he needs an ablation for atrial flutter, have to start Warfarin, but he is a bleeding risk.... so tomorrow I have to start a new regime again...wish me luck!

over 3 years, said...

Everything you have said is true of what caregivers go thru. I feel the same way about taking care of my mother with dementia . I feel guilty all the time since her passing that I should have taken better care of her that she would still be alive. Recovery health, hospice, nurses said I did such a wonderful job of taking care of her but it was the disease that just kept progressing that she couldn't make it anymore and my mother didn't want to keep going on in such pain and misery.

over 3 years, said...

True article. Welcome to my world! You left out serious dental issues due to teeth clenching and TMJ!

over 3 years, said...

I can relate to some of these as a carer

over 3 years, said...

Paula, you nailed it again. I have been learning from you and that's not all, reading your articles makes me feel validated and understood. You have an easy way to encourage me to make a change here and there whenever I can. Thank you so much. Nancy M.

over 3 years, said...

My father died from Alzheimer's Disease, and my mother was his sole caregiver for 10+ years. She was convinced no one else could care for him, and she refused to get any kind of assistance with his care, including allowing other family members to help. Her physical and mental health suffered beyond description. She displayed every symptom listed here except that she lost a lot of weight, rather than being overweight or out of shape. She is almost a senior anorexic, weighing in at 83 pounds. When my Dad had to go into a nursing home because his condition had deteriorated so badly he needed round the clock medical care, she blamed herself for not being able to continue to care for him. She also believed that he was not receiving adequate care, even though no one else in the family saw anything but great, caring nurses and staff members who cared for his every need. She even believes today that had she taken him home with her, he would not have passed away from that dreadful disease. Alzheimer's took our Dad from us one painful day at a time. But being a relentless caregiver who refused any help ruined our Mom's health, both physically and mentally, and has robbed us of the mother we once knew. If you have a relentless caregiver in your family, do your best to get them some relief before you lose them both.