I read a letter to Dear Abby from a woman who had hit her dog once.

As I recall, the woman had been up around the clock for days caring for her much loved pet toward the end of his life. She was exhausted. At some point the dog did something out of character, and without thinking, she slapped him, which happened to be completely out of character for her. She was immediately heartbroken by her action. Even though she loved her pet deeply and showed it with her hourly devotion to him, her regret was intense. In the days that followed, and especially following his death, she was overcome by guilt. She wrote that she could not forgive herself but she recognized that she was burned out. I don’t know what became of the woman. I hope she has been able to forgive herself.

Caregiver burnout is a serious issue.

It would be so easy to judge that writer and say, “I would never do that,” but you don’t know unless you were in her particular extreme situation. Caregiver burnout is more than feeling a little stressed. It is a dramatic change in your normal coping and perspective tools. When you have burnout you might experience strong emotions that are abnormal for you. You cry very easily or have a very low patience threshold. You may feel angry all the time. You are apathetic about your normal hobbies or the people and things you usually enjoy. You might eat too much or begin losing weight. You may yell and lose your temper when you never did that before. You may begin to see your own dying as an ideal way to escape your role. The best thing to do if you are experiencing burnout is to get out of the situation and give yourself some attention: sleep, proper food, and someone to talk to. Ideally, a break is what you need. But I know those remedies can be hard to come by.

Honestly, I look back and see that I did do some crazy things and experienced some burnout when I was a caregiver.

I didn’t know it at the time and had never heard of that term. And to be blunt, I don’t know what I would have done about it had I recognized it. I didn’t really have anyone to relieve me for more than a couple of hours; it would have taken more than that to make a difference. Hiring someone wasn’t an option. I just muddled through, feeling like I was a soldier in a war that I would ultimately lose because the man I was caring for would die no matter how well I did my job. I just kept going as I know you do, too.

Did you ever see the television show, M*A*S*H? For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, M*A*S*H was a comedy/drama about a medical team stationed in Korea during the Korean war. Every week I watched show characters in a relentlessly stressful situation doing crazy things either as a response to the pressure or as a way of coping with it. I thought about that show often when I was a caregiver and felt I could relate to the insanity.

Don’t misunderstand. I loved being a caregiver. I felt it was an honor and a privilege to be able to provide so much for someone at the end of his life.

It changed who I was and I’m so grateful for every aspect of the experience. I think a lot caregivers feel they are better people for their role and wouldn’t forego it. But being a long-term caregiver is an experience that can consume you if you do it too long. Before you know it you can experience burnout and not even recognize it. As you lose objectivity to your situation you lose objectivity in seeing yourself. Even if you did recognize it, would you be able to help yourself?

It would be a great service for former caregivers to recognize the signs of burnout and not to leave these fellow caregivers on their own to figure it out.

Those of us who have been there before should watch the current soldiers for signs. We might not be able to solve their problems but we can tell them, “You’re exhibiting signs of burnout.” Then we can listen to them and tell them how we coped. Simply being there for them and being able to truly empathize with their struggle could make a difference to someone on the edge of burnout so they can help themselves and return to their role with renewed strength. We need to be there for each other.

Caregiver burnout can strike any type of caregiver when they are pushed too far or push themselves too far.

When the journey ends, the caregiver needs to look back and be self-forgiving for any transgressions. The care recipient will forgive and love the caregiver, especially on a spiritual level. The caregiver needs to do the same for herself or himself.

Please share this with other caregivers!

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