Alberta Cancer Foundation

Expert Advice on Dealing with Caregiver Burnout

Illustration by Jennifer Madole.

 

For family caregivers, the challenges of balancing the regular demands of work life and home life with the often-immense stresses of caring for a loved one with cancer can be exhausting, and may even lead to caregiver burnout.

Lorna Scott, who lives in Medicine Hat, began her journey as a caregiver in 2005 when her husband, Callum, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer stage 3 C. After Callum’s cancer metastasized in 2008, Scott began blogging and later wrote a book, Walking the Journey Together…Alone: Finding Peace, Hope, and Joy in the Middle of the Sh**. Callum passed away in 2011.

Today, Scott is still an active member of the caregiver community through The Caregiver’s Lighthouse, a program she created to support caregivers by providing resources such as coaching and workshops. She also facilitates a caregiver group called The Kitchen is Open.

Here, Scott shares how to recognize the symptoms of caregiver burnout and offers strategies for how to mitigate it.

Q: Who is a family caregiver?

A family caregiver is someone who is caring for a family member or close friend who has a chronic disease, illness, disability, aging, cognitive issues, etc. But what I’ve discovered is people don’t see themselves as a family caregiver, it’s part of their life, and yet the impact [on that person] is huge. So, that part of my language has changed a little bit. These are people who are caregiving. It is something that they are doing, more than something that they are being, because they are still a whole person.

Q: What is caregiver burnout?

Caregiver burnout is when the person who is caregiving is very isolated, completely exhausted and may not be making good decisions. They are unaware of how serious things are, even when all evidence points to that. One of the causes [of caregiver burnout] is financial — sometimes the [treatment] choices for patients can cause financial strain. Another cause is lack of social support. Many people want to help but don’t know what to do. [And there’s also] the stress of having to work while continuing to provide care.

Q: What are some of the symptoms of caregiver burnout?

Isolation, loneliness and feeling hopeless and helpless. Many [caregivers] are diagnosed with depression. Sometimes people will look very frazzled, because they are very tired and not looking after themselves. Other symptoms include overeating, undereating, gaining weight and losing weight. Not sleeping is also one of the biggest ones.

Q: What are some tips to avoid burnout?

Keep a to-do list of things you can’t do on your own for when people ask, ‘What can I do?’ Physical activity is also really important. Another piece of avoiding burnout is having your employer on board and being at a workplace where they have some understanding of what you’re going through. And later on, respite. Find out within the medical community whether palliative care is right [for your family] and take advantage of that. Don’t be afraid of those referrals when they come, see them as opportunities.

Learn more about resources for caregivers at the Family Caregiver Centre at Alberta Health Services and the Alberta Caregivers Association, and through online resources such as caregiversalberta.ca.