I’d been living at my Dad’s house for just weeks when his cancer marched forward to win the war. It was a fast decline. One day he could walk, the next day he couldn’t. I was unprepared for my caring duties to double overnight.
I had moved with my kids from Sydney to a remote part of New Zealand. Our mission was to help my Dad to die in the comfort of his own home. I had minimal support and was juggling two small children and a critically sick man.
One day, as the community nurse came to check on us, she and I stood in the winter sun on the porch for a moment before entering the house. I was exhausted. I was emotionally spent and incredibly tired from late nights of watching Dad, afraid that tonight would be the night. Her kind eyes looked into mine -
“When did you last do something for yourself?” she asked.
I huffed a breath out of my nose with a smirk.
“Just something small,” she continued. “A cup of tea in the sun, a bath, reading a magazine.”
She had me there. My days and nights had become about ensuring everyone else was ok. My own needs had slipped into a crevice somewhere. This realisation is not unusual for primary carers of the sick and disabled however, I was only there for a little over a month.
Many carers are on duty for years.
According to the 2015 National ‘Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers in Australia’ approximately 27% of primary carers had high psychological distress. Nearly half of the people in the study reported changes in their health and wellbeing.
There are some clear red flags that indicate you may be on a fast track to burnout, like feeling overwhelmed, fatigue, and poor sleep. That said, there are more subtle things to keep an eye out for so they don’t slip under the radar.
Do you have a short fuse?
Irritability and anger are common and sometimes ignored as symptoms of burnout. Ongoing feelings of sadness is also one to look out for.
How's your appetite?
You may find your weight is fluctuating either up or down from your usual weight.
This could be due to emotional eating, or a loss of appetite.
Got aches and pains?
Stress and overwhelm can lead to headaches or body aches and reduced immunity.
In the bustle of the daily caring routine you may be unaware of your own wellbeing slipping.
As always, prevention is better than a cure so as a reminder of the importance of carers maintaining good physical and mental wellbeing, bear in mind the oxygen mask analogy.
In the case of an emergency on a plane, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling. You must always secure your own mask before attempting to help others. Your wellbeing is paramount to helping others, so you have the strength and resilience required for such an essential and enduring task.
Two tips to prevent burnout
- Take a break: Taking time out of the house or securing some respite care can give you the necessary space and stimulation to reset your energy and mental bandwidth. It could be as simple as a cup of tea in the sun, a warm bath or 30 minutes or reading a book.
- Talk with friends, other caregivers and professionals: You need not try to manage all of the challenges and the resulting emotions alone. Reaching out to friends to share your feelings can be like releasing a pressure valve. There are also many support groups available covering everything from mental and emotional support over the phone and online to in-person care.