Even Caregivers Need a Break

Caregiver burnout has an impact on physical, mental and emotional well-being. There are various reasons a caregiver may be reticent to delegate to others. This article includes a simple exercise to start the process.

When I saw this sign in my neighborhood, it reminded me a little bit of the caregiver journey. Monarch butterflies travel up to 3,000 miles to reach their summer or winter homes – and they only do it once. A tiny butterfly cannot travel that far without stopping to rest and refuel during such a long trip. As a caregiver, you may have, or are already experiencing, a long journey ahead. To maintain your physical, mental, and emotional health, it helps to plan periodic rest breaks along the way. What that looks like can take on different forms.


If you aren’t already dashing off a text to someone to help or scheduling a quick getaway, then you may be struggling with the idea of letting another person take over for you. I know I did. I had lots of reasons for staying “in the game.” Here are some possible concerns you may have:

  • Guilt and/or Fear. Maybe you feel like this is your responsibility, and, to delegate your caregiving responsibilities to someone else, even for an hour, would be wrong. Your visits may elevate your loved one’s mood or improve his or her vital signs. There could also be the fear that something could happen while someone else is there (a medication mistake, a fall or even death), and it would have occurred because you chose not to be, or were not, there.
  • Fatigue. You would like to take a break, but you are too tired to find resources or to ask for help. It is true that our brains do not work as well when we are tired or exhausted. In this case, you seem to be fighting a vicious cycle of needing rest to find someone to help you get rest.
  • Isolation. If this is a long-term illness, your friends’ and family’s eagerness to help may have lessened with time or you may have lost touch. A long absence may make it seem difficult to suddenly approach them for assistance.
  • Needing to be in control. This was one of mine. There were so many things beyond my control, I just wanted to hold onto the things I could manage. Looking back now, I realize I overlooked some prime opportunities to allow others to help and to give myself a break.
  • Lack of Boundaries. Some loved ones can be overly demanding – even in ill health. If you are not sure about what your limits are, a persistent loved one can take over a good part of your life for you.
  • Lack of Resources. Resources could include financial, community or medical.

The Case for Scheduling Breaks

Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. It may be accompanied by a change in attitude, from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned. Burnout can occur when caregivers don’t get the help they need, or if they try to do more than they are able, physically or financially.

The Cleveland Clinic

Caregivers are amazing creatures, but we are not invincible. Caregiver burnout is real and manifests itself with mental, emotional and physical symptoms, such as depression, irritability or getting sick more often.

I recently read an article where a woman, who was caring for her mother, said she hated it when people told her to take care of herself so she could be there for her mother. Perhaps what she needed most was someone to offer to help.

A Simple Exercise

I believe most people genuinely want to help, but often don’t know what to do or don’t want to impose. Here is a simple exercise to get you started to connect sincere “helpers” with you as the caregiver.

Take a sheet of paper or a blank page on your computer or notes app on your phone. Title it, “Ways Friends/Family Can Help.” Begin listing tasks or treats that could help you. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Bring a meal for the freezer
  • Drive Mom to physical therapy on Tuesdays (or one Tuesday)
  • Purchase a bag of sugar-free candy for Dad
  • Invite child for an outing or sleepover
  • Take/pick up dry cleaning
  • Wrap birthday/holiday present(s)
  • Bring snack or drink and sit with me for 30 minutes
  • Call me every Wednesday for 10-15 minutes
  • Check loved one’s house to ensure it is secure and looks lived-in
  • Take pet(s) for annual exams

Keep this list with you (on your phone, in your purse, in your car). The next time someone offers to help, briefly scan the list and see if there is something you would be willing to let them do – or let them choose an item on the list.

Future posts will discuss apps for organizing friends and family helpers as well as developing a respite care plan and finding respite care resources. Until then, if you need additional ideas for your Helper List above, the Alzheimer’s Association has a really good list of ways to support caregivers that might help you along.


Author: Lisa Adams

Publisher of You Don't Have to Join the Circus Blog

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