By Dwight Bain, Nationally Certified Counselor & Certified Life Coach
“Don’t take life so seriously, you’ll never get out of it alive,” was the simple advice I saw on a greeting card once and it makes sense, especially when thinking about the incredible pressures placed on those in the important role of caregiver for a loved one. You’ve got to lighten up the load to prevent major burnout.
Many times it’s easy to overlook just how tired, frustrated, or angry someone feels when they are buried in the dozens of day-to-day tasks required of a primary caregiver. This special report is designed to help you spot the warning signs when you’ve done too much for too long and don’t have enough energy left in the tank to help anyone, including yourself.
There was a popular song many years ago that had the lyric, “he ain’t heavy- he’s my brother” which isn’t exactly accurate. If you are piggy-back riding your brother, sister, child, or any other family member, their actual weight is still the same, but because you love and care for them, you have extra energy to serve them. Love will allow you to carry someone you care about for a while – but after a while they do get heavy again, and you will feel the pressure to want to take a break. That’s normal and not a sign of lack of love, rather just a sign of being human. So what does it mean to be a ‘Care-Giver’ anyway?
To be a Caregiver is to provide financial, relational, physical, spiritual, or emotional support to someone who is unable to live independently like:
— newborns or small children
— those recovering from an injury or illness
— aging loved ones
— anyone facing a terminal illness
— those who are disabled in some way (physically, mentally, emotionally)
This just about covers parents and people from all walks of life and all ages, so it probably impacts you or someone you care about. Let’s un-package this important issue to understand the dangers of being a ‘good Samaritan’ and find out how to avoid the often overwhelming stress that can come from being a compassionate parent, adult child, or primary caregiver.
Let’s start by defining the difference between CARETAKERS and CAREGIVERS.
A caretaker provides a level of compassionate service for someone in need, often for a fee or salary of some kind. They may feel a special calling to help out (like nurses, teachers, doctors, counselors, or pastors), yet at the end of the day, it’s their job and they are compensated in some way for their services. Caretakers can do their important work in many ways. For instance, they can work with children, with patients, wounded people, or by managing property or running a museum. It’s important work, often tiring, but not usually overwhelming enough to create compassion fatigue or massive distress because there are clear boundaries, defined duties, and reasonable expectations, as well as defined hours of service.
Being a caretaker is much less complicated than being a caregiver. Caregivers do the same work, but often with greater intensity, since they often aren’t compensated in some way and just work out of the goodness of their hearts to show compassion to the person in need. They often give and give expecting nothing in return, yet that is often why they run out of energy and burnout. They don’t have defined hours, schedules, or budgets. It can get very stressful, very fast because they can’t do everything for everyone all the time without it leading to caregiver stress.
Consider the following warning signs I first learned from my friend June Hunt to see if you are experiencing this type of roadblock to healthy relationships.
The Caregiver Stress Checklist
In asking yourself these questions, honestly assess your feelings to determine if it could be time to seek professional help to overcome caregiver stress.
• Am I easily agitated with those I love?
• Am I becoming more critical of others?
• Am I having difficulty laughing or having fun?
• Am I turning down most invitations to be with others?
• Am I feeling depressed about my situation?
• Am I feeling hurt when my efforts go unnoticed?
• Am I resentful when other family members are not helping?
• Am I feeling trapped by all the responsibilities?
• Am I being manipulated?
• Am I missing sleep and regular exercise?
• Am I too busy for quiet time with God?
• Am I feeling guilty when I take time for myself?
Warning Signs of Caregiver Stress:
___ Physically – exhausted and worn out
___ Emotionally – resentful, stressed, bitter
___ Relationally – feeling used or unappreciated
___ Financially – overwhelmed or depleted
It’s right to care for people in need. It’s healthy to show compassion. Those are good things and make us feel better for having made a difference in the lives of others. You can show care in a lot of ways and should. Consider the meanings of the verb care: “To have a personal interest in, or be watchful over, to be affectionate toward, to look out for, to be concerned about, to provide for, to give serious attention to and to keep safe.” Caring is important, but there are some hidden dangers if you care too much.
Hidden Facts about the Good Samaritan
There is no better example of being a compassionate caregiver than the timeless story taught by Jesus about the Good Samaritan. You may remember the story – a man is mugged by thieves and left for dead on the side of the road. Then a pastor and a lawyer pass by on the other side to avoid getting involved. Finally, a man from another cultural background stops, applies first aid, transports the victim to a respite center, and pays for his care. Jesus showed that the person who really showed love for his neighbor wasn’t the most religious or best educated, or even from the same culture; rather, the one who showed the greatest compassion was the only one who fulfilled the great commandment to 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'
This is a life changing spiritual teaching for anyone, yet one should not miss some basic factors to protect the Good Samaritan from compassion fatigue. Yes, he jumped in to help a stranger, and, yes, he showed great love for another human being, but he didn’t do it alone! The Good Samaritan started a healing process in the life of a wounded man and allowed others, like the inn-keeper, to be part of the team to make a positive difference in helping a man rebuild and recover. When you are part of a team helping someone going through a crisis, you are less likely to burnout. And that’s a good thing for everyone so you can have a lot more energy to help others for years to come.
Self Care Comes First
Chaplain Max Helton worked next to me at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks in New York on 9-11-01. He taught me a wonderful process in dealing with overwhelming situations. First, focus on ‘self-care,’ then ‘buddy care,’ and finally ‘other care’. This way you can protect your own energy, help others facing the same care-giving challenges, and then together be much stronger and more focused to better serve others.
It can be done, but it can’t be done alone. God designed us to work together in partnership with others. Moms and dads, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, fellow church members, neighbors, co-workers, community members, basically anyone could be in a situation to be a caregiver. But remember the principle to not go it alone. Let others help you.
If you are facing a major care-giving role alone, let me challenge you to reach out for some help. It could come from friends, family, pastors, churches, a MOPS group, or other supportive group, but whatever you do, don’t try to do it all yourself. Caring is good; exhaustion isn’t. If you are aware that you are feeling pressure to do it all, take the checklists and insights from this article to review with someone close to you for an objective point of view just to keep you from the stress of caring too much that you get lost in the process. Or perhaps you have a friend, co-worker, or family member that appears to be struggling with compassion fatigue that you could invite for a cup of coffee to review the key points and then open up a discussion on how you might be an encouragement to help them better manage the stress of caring for someone in need.
You don’t have to do it all alone, but you do have to openly bring up the subject to let the people who care about you likely know the pressure is building and that you need some help. Here are some strategies to guide you with a sense of balance as you willingly share your heart of compassion without getting crushed from too much care.
How to prevent being so full of “care” that you can’t care for yourself
1) Be aware of the common stress signals that come with being a caregiver:
___ irritability or moodiness
___ feelings of resentment
___ loss of sleep or feeling frequently exhausted
___ increased susceptibility to colds and flu
___ feeling guilty about taking time for yourself
2) Be aware of the pressure of care-giving and that it builds over time.
3) Be aware that as care-giving goes up, additional coping skills should go up, too.
4) Be aware of your own needs and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
"You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage -- pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically -- to say 'no' to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger 'yes' burning inside. The enemy of the 'best' is often the 'good.'" — Stephen Covey
5) Be aware of the resources around you, and be willing to take a respite.
Tips to add compassionate care - Send cards and handwritten notes - Make visits to the hospital or nursing home - Send flowers or small gifts - Provide food and occasionally an entire meal - Volunteer to be a driver (transportation) - Entertain children or other family members - Shop for needed items - Set aside time for regular reading aloud - Take walks and do other outdoor activities - Offer to do laundry and housecleaning - Be a willing and attentive listener - Extend emotional and physical affection - Provide financial assistance - Pray for someone in a crisis and ask others to join you in providing spiritual support for those in great need.
6) Be aware that sometimes you need to just sit on the floor and laugh or cry.
"I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all." — Laura Ingalls Wilder
7) Be aware that care-giving is hard work and often you may want to quit, yet it is still one of the most loving acts of Servant Leadership.
“For the heartsick, bleeding soul out there today who is desperate for a word of encouragement, let me assure you that you can trust this Lord of heaven and earth.There is security and rest in the wisdom of the eternal Scriptures. I believe the Lord can be trusted, even when He cannot be tracked. Of this you can be certain: Jehovah, King of kings and Lord of lords, is not pacing the corridors of heaven in confusion over the problems in your life! He hung the worlds in space. He can handle the burdens that have weighed you down, and He cares about you deeply. He says to you, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Psalms 46:10 — James Dobson, Ph.D.
Reprinted with permission from the LifeWorks Group, www.LifeWorksGroup.org eNews (Copyright, 2004-2010, by the LifeWorks Group in Florida. 407-647-7005 ).
About the author
Dwight Bain is dedicated to helping people achieve greater results. He is a Nationally Certified Counselor, Certified Life Coach, and Certified Family Law Mediator in practice since 1984 with a primary focus on solving crisis events and managing major change. He partners with media, corporations, and non-profit organizations to make a positive difference in our culture. Access more counseling and coaching resources designed to save you time by solving stressful situations by visiting his counseling blog with over 300 complimentary articles and special reports at www.LifeWorksGroup.org