Superman is iconic and world renowned for being the “Man of Steel.” He possesses extraordinary superhuman powers and seems nearly invincible, but even Superman has a weakness - his compassion. I often equate caregivers to Superman - they are the superheroes in the fight against cancer, but it’s important to remember, that like Superman, caregivers can also succumb to their vulnerabilities and experience compassion fatigue or caregiver burnout.
Over time, as cancer care has become more long-term, and treatments are moving from a hospital setting to the home, a caregiver is an integral part of the cancer care team, now more than ever. Their responsibilities are vast...they are by a patient’s side throughout a cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery. Being part of the care team requires a lot of caregivers - to have an understanding of the disease, provide encouragement to their loved one, show patience, and have high level of energy to successfully fulfill their responsibilities.
Caregivers take on many roles, including that of an advocate or nurse, just to name a few. There is often a need for “changing hats” and roles, requiring them to quickly learn new skills. In addition to all of that, many caregivers still need to maintain their regular responsibilities. Caring for someone with a life-threatening disease can be emotionally and physically draining, and lead to self-neglect, with prolonged caregiving often leading to caregiver burnout.
What is caregiver burnout? It is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that is often accompanied by a declining state of attitude or increased negativity. Caregiver burnout happens in response to taking on a lot of long-term stress. It is normal to experience fear and uncertainty about the cancer and your loved one. It can be overwhelming to suddenly take on so much decision-making and responsibilities, including financial. Caregiving may take time away from the things you enjoy, such as spending time with friends or hobbies. It can be more difficult to get alone time, as caregiving can be a 24/7 job.
How will you know if you are experiencing caregiver burnout? Caregiver burnout is more than feeling stressed. It can cause feelings of anxiety, depressed moods, irritability, frustration and fear. Caregiver burnout can leave one feeling a loss of control, poor focus, dissatisfaction with work, and isolation or loneliness. Caregiver burnout can even result in physical symptoms, including insomnia, muscle tension, headaches, gastrointestinal upset, changes in weight, fatigue, chest pain, heart problems, hair loss, skin problems, or frequent infections.
If you believe that you might be experiencing caregiver burnout, see your healthcare provider. Do not ignore your own health needs. Be watchful of unhealthy behaviors such as over reliance on substances such as alcohol, tobacco or other substances, overeating or not eating enough, emotional disturbances, change in sleeping habits. Do not give up self care behaviors such as exercise, seeing friends and getting needed rest. And if needed, seek out the help of a professional - there may even be a psychologist or social worker at the hospital caring for your loved one that is experienced in helping patients and caregivers. Caregivers need support too.
How can you manage caregiver burnout? Prevention is best. Burnout can steadily set in, so it’s important recognize the warning signs of caregiver burnout early. Caregiving “takes a village” and so there should be division of labor or caregiving shifts. It’s important to ask for the help you need, but also be clear to others to what that help looks like for you - they will need your guidance.
As a caregiver, you are your loved one’s Superhero. And compassion is your greatest superpower. As another famous superhero was once told - “With great power comes great responsibility.” In order to continue being the Superhero that you are, you need to show yourself the compassion you show your loved one so you can both thrive on. Remember, on your best day, Superhero, you are still only Human.