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Catholic Charities Report

How to Avoid Burn-Out When Caring for a Loved One

By Gary Bouchard, Consulting Editor

As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with more than twenty years of experience, and a woman committed to her Christian faith, Janice MacKenzie understands the challenges faced by those who devote their lives to the care of others. Serving as a Catholic Charities counselor in Littleton and Lancaster, she sees first-hand the growing number of people who find themselves responsible for the physical and emotional well-being of an aging parent, disabled sibling, grown child or other relative who requires daily care.

People with strong faith typically recognize this circumstance as a calling. Devout Catholics see the care they give to someone in ill health as a corporal work of mercy and know they serve Christ in serving the person in need. For all our prayerful and unselfish efforts, however, we are human, and as susceptible to burn-out as everyone else. And because our expectations of ourselves are high, burn-out may impact people with religious purpose even more profoundly than others.

“As followers of Christ, we try to live up to a higher standard and we’re going to do our best to be good Christians, and good servants,” says Janice. “We have high expectations of ourselves, believing ‘I’ve been put in this position to take care of this person and God expects me to do this.’ When someone with this strong sense of purpose starts to feel burn-out, they can be especially hard on themselves. They may believe that they don’t have a right to feel that way, and that they have failed at their purpose, letting God and others down in the process.”

Janice notes that “fatigue, irritability, high anxiety, depression and guilt” are some symptoms of burn-out – the emotional island that some caregivers find themselves on from working day-to-day with people who are suffering. “Beyond burn-out,” she observes, “some caregivers may be experiencing compassion fatigue, a condition that has similar symptoms to ‘secondary trauma stress disorder’ which is akin to PTSD.”

Caregivers typically move through the four stages of burn-out: enthusiasm, stagnation, frustration and apathy, Janice says, noting that Mother Teresa understood the inevitable descent from enthusiasm to apathy that caregivers experience. “Mother Teresa made it mandatory that every four years her nuns take an entire year off from caring for the suffering and dying to heal from compassion fatigue.”

Certainly most caregivers are not in a position to take a year off from their duties. So what can they do? “There are multiple things that need to be addressed when a person has caregiver burn-out,” Janice says, “and the first one is being honest, recognizing and admitting that I am not a super-woman or a super-man.”

Caring for others requires that we first take care of ourselves, Janice says. “Being completely self-less is not healthy or realistic. Any caregiver who is experiencing burn-out is not practicing self-care: eating well, getting rest, exercising, taking breaks, practicing mindfulness, other anxiety management skills and using prayer and reflection.” Janice encourages caregivers to set healthy boundaries, to say “no” when they need to, to ask for help, identify priorities and goals of their own and learn how to reach them.

Self-care also requires addressing destructive thought patterns, according to Janice. “The guilt can be incredible. People convince themselves that they are selfish if they start to take care of themselves. They are reluctant to surrender their duties to someone else even temporarily, believing that no one else can take care of their loved one as well as they do. They tell themselves that if they take one day off and their loved one dies, it’s their fault.” Caregivers trapped in such thinking, Janice says, are likely not going to take good care of themselves, and their inevitable burn-out may also prevent them from providing compassionate care to their loved one.

“A good support system is vital,” Janice says, “and that may require seeking out family, friends, a support group, professional counselor, or a priest or pastor.” For people uncertain of where to turn, she recommends they begin by contacting either Catholic Charities’ Counseling Services or Parish and Community Services to connect with available resources and begin the healing process.