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  • Writer's pictureHeather Friel

Put Your Oxygen Mask On First

There is a decent chance that we all know someone who has been tasked to care for a loved one...

There is a decent chance that we all know someone who has been tasked to care for a loved one. Perhaps you yourself are in the situation of providing care to someone you know. That someone can be a parent, a spouse or partner, even a close friend or neighbor. Approximately 22.4 million people in the United States provide some form of care to someone who is elderly, ill, or disabled. While studies have proven that the selfless act of giving our time and caring for an elderly or sick loved one can be rewarding and beneficial to our mental health it also has been proven that individuals balancing life’s responsibilities while providing care can be susceptible to “burnout.” This post will discuss burnout. It will outline what burnout may look and feel like and it will also give some solutions on how to prevent and manage caregiver burnout.

What is burnout?

The dictionary defines burnout as "a physical or mental collapse cause by overwork or stress." Burnout can occur in individuals who experience overwhelming amounts of stress brought on by their job, family, finances, or health. One population who is at an increased risk of burnout are folks who care for an aging loved one. Most individuals who are placed in the position of caretaker not only have to keep up with the constant demands of their caretaker role but also must maintain and fulfill responsibilities and commitments related to their own life. These responsibilities could be a job outside of the residence, family and children, personal relationships, and their own health and well-being. Burnout can manifest in many ways either physical, mental, or both. Signs that you—or someone you know—may be suffering from burnout are fatigue, depression, cynicism, loss of appetite, anxiety, chest pain, dizziness, and insomnia. Caretakers can experience a state of constant worry. They may present with feelings of apathy or hopelessness and become increasingly irritable.

Burnout can be prevented if the caretaker is knowledgeable and aware of the signs or symptoms. Caretakers should also be aware of behaviors and strategies that can help prevent burnout.


Perhaps the most important tool a caretaker can keep in their mental “toolbox” is self-compassion. From the time we are young we are told to be kind to others. We are told to show others compassion and to treat others as we would like to be treated. We are not told that these rules apply to ourselves as well. Be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. Give yourself a break. Do not criticize or judge yourself. Do not ignore the way you feel when things get tough. Ask yourself what you need and don't ever hesitate to reach out for help.


If you have ever taken a commercial flight you have seen a flight attendant go over safety protocols. During the rundown of these safety procedures it is explained that, during an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead compartment. It is stressed that each passenger is to put their own mask on before assisting those around them. The logic behind this is simply that you cannot help anyone else until you've helped yourself. This idea applies to caregivers and those they care for. Often, caretakers are so consumed with putting their elderly or sick loved ones' needs first that the caretaker forgets about their own needs. Giving your time and energy to another person, especially one who is sick or can no longer complete the day-to-day tasks required to survive and thrive, is undoubtedly one of the most selfless acts we can do. But failure to dedicate time and energy to caring for yourself can result in mental and/or physical burnout. Not only should you be kind to yourself, you also need to take care of yourself. Make sure you're eating good, nutritious food. Squeeze out time to walk or hit the gym. Making these two things a priority will leave you feeling positive and re-energized even when you find yourself feeling stressed from the demands of being another's sole caregiver.

A healthy diet and regular exercise seem like no-brainers, so what else can a caregiver do to care for themselves? Reflect and find your happiness. Maybe your happiness is a good book and some quiet time. It could be a couple quiet moments with your family pet. Some enjoy their alone time, but others find it beneficial to spend time with friends over a good meal. Make sure you take a minute to laugh.

In theory, all these suggestions may sound good, but how does one find the time for them? The best answer is: Ask for help. Reach out to another family member or friend to provide a couple hours of support and explain that this time is important to you. There are non-medical, home care agencies you can hire to supervise, provide personal care, and even cook and do some light cleaning for your loved one. Perhaps your loved one would benefit attending an adult daycare which not only provides you with time to implement self-care but could also give the one you care for important social interactions they may not get at home.

Many agencies offer aid based on financial need through government-funded programs. There are resources available and some research could provide you with the information and tools you need to be an effective caregiver for your loved one...and yourself.

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