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Avoiding Emotional Exhaustion: Some Counterintuitive Tips for Caregivers

Feelings of inadequacy are an occupational hazard of caregiving. If the person you are caring for is someone you love, like your mother or father, you might feel like you can never do enough. So you pour yourself out. In addition to all the tasks that must be done, you look for opportunities to add joy to their day. But you find yourself simply not accomplishing that goal. So you try harder and harder, until you are in such a state of exhaustion, both physically and emotionally, that you’re not even able to accomplish the bare minimum, much less the lofty goal of selfless loving care.

It’s not working. But what’s the alternative? To do less?

This is not a commentary about how to find respite care. Maybe you’ve already enlisted professional care, or maybe it’s financially out of reach. Maybe you’ve already availed yourself of as much help from family and friends as they’re willing to give. Respite care is a wonderful thing, but it’s not always obtainable.

Instead, here are some slightly counterintuitive suggestions for how you can paradoxically preserve your sense of self without giving up on your goal of selflessness.

Caregiving is a matter of self-sacrifice.

  1. Think more loosely about what counts as quality time. If you’re looking for a way to spend time with someone who has dementia, consider an activity you enjoy instead of one that you think will make them happy—but that’s burdensome to you. If your mother loved museums all her life but you greatly prefer shopping, try taking her shopping. You might find that your mother enjoys your company more when you’re enjoying yourself. Or if you’re watching TV with your father, a lifelong baseball fan, experiment: how does he respond if you put on your favorite show instead of the game?
  2. You don’t always have to put down your phone. Caregivers are told how important it is to be present. That’s indisputable. But aiming for continual presence with no breaks might result in such emotional exhaustion that you end up not being able to be there at all. Don’t begrudge yourself a break from presence, even if it’s seemingly unproductive scrolling through social media.
  3. Self-care shouldn’t be one more chore. Overwhelmed caregivers feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to get everything done. It’s not helpful to tell a person in such a situation that what they need is a hobby. A book club is not going to be spiritually and intellectually enriching if your motivation for going is only your already-overburdened sense of responsibility. Give yourself permission to prioritize what you actually enjoy, even if it’s not creative, stimulating, or social. Even if it doesn’t cultivate your talents. Your sense of self needs to be fed, yes—but even more crucial, it needs a little room to breathe.
  4. Add a little subjectivity to the prioritization of your to-do list. You can’t preserve your sense of self without a little self-knowledge. When we prioritize our to-do lists, we usually try to think objectively: what really needs to get done? To a great extent, that’s unavoidable. You can’t skip your dad’s doctor’s appointment just because you haven’t finished doing the dishes. But as much as you can, try prioritizing according to what item feels the most emotionally urgent. For example, if you’re cleaning and organizing your parent’s house and the task is overwhelming, you’ll probably ask yourself what area needs it the most and start there. Instead, try asking yourself what sorts of disorder you can tolerate, and what kinds cause you distress. The answer will be intensely subjective and personal, but that doesn’t make it invalid. If you ask yourself what’s tugging at your mind and causing you to feel overwhelmed and inadequate, you may be surprised to find it’s actually just one thing—and a small thing at that.  

Caregiving is a matter of self-sacrifice. There’s no way around it. But by tuning in a bit to your own needs—the ones you actually experience, and not only the ones that have an air of legitimacy—you will be more present, more accessible, and more helpful in the long run to your loved one.