Caring for the Caregiver: Avoiding Caregiver Burnout

Caring for the Caregiver: Avoiding Caregiver Burnout

In 2013, Statistics Canada published a paper entitled Portrait of caregivers, 2012 based on the General Social Survey[1]. The results are quite staggering when reviewed in the context of our aging population. In 2012, more than 8 million people across our country were identified as being ‘caregivers’ – 28% of which indicated that they “provided care for age-related needs” (page 5, Portrait of caregivers, 2012).  In the coming years, more families will be called upon to fulfill a caregiver role, as evidenced by the 2016 census which reflected an increased life expectancy and the new societal reality where the number of seniors in Canada is greater than that of children for the first time in history. In fact, the fastest-growing segment of the population is centenarians. While the proportion of seniors varies by province, it is projected that by 2053, 23.5 to 26.8% of Canada’s population will 65 and up[2]. As projections become reality, health care, housing, transportation and so many other things, including caregiving, will be affected. As people live longer, and stay healthy well into their senior years, those that will require care will presumably be older; logically, those family members who will become caregivers will also be older and may be dealing with their own age-related issues at the same time as those of their elder parents’.

Regardless of one’s age or situation, the overall impact of the caregiver role can affect both mental and physical health. For some who may also be juggling other family and paid work responsibilities, being a caregiver as well, will most definitely increase already existing stress levels. So, for those of our readers who have added caregiver to their list of roles – whether, through choice or necessity, I thought it important to include some information for you, to both acknowledge how very difficult this task can be (for both the caregiver and recipient) and to offer some thoughts that might help you cope better.

Without a doubt, it is most important that those providing care and support for a loved one “care” for themselves as much as the person they are caring for – seek out support, assistance, and help that can allow you to carve out time to meet some of your own needs.

First and foremost, caregivers must communicate openly – with medical personnel, family, friends, and their support network. Avoiding or negating problems does not help anyone and can easily escalate and negatively impact relationships. Letting your employer know your situation — especially in the event of a crisis — is important as well. There may be available support groups, Employee Assistance Programs, paid family leave options, or financial assistance (in the form of benefits or tax credits) available to you[3].

A key component to your role of caregiver is education. Educate yourself and help to educate other people assisting you with care. Knowledge is empowering and can both decrease anxiety and help you provide the proper support. You need to seek out information about their medical condition, treatment options & resources available to both/all of you. This will enable you to plan ahead as much as possible (although the situation may change frequently so, flexibility is also important). If you take your loved one to medical appointments, write out questions you have prior to your appointment so you can ensure you cover all issues of concern. If you are providing physical care, make sure you know how to do this safely. If you do not feel you can do this, take some time to explore options for either in-home assistance or relocation.

There are many supports and resources available for caregivers however sometimes knowing where to locate what you need can be a bit of a challenge. As a first step, discuss your needs with the primary care physician. If he/she is unable to provide suggestions, ask for a referral to a local seniors or care agency that can help you to coordinate care and supports. 

Sharing responsibilities with others is one of the most significant aspects of this role that benefits both the caregiver and the person they are caring for. Know when you need help and don’t be afraid to ask for it or seek it out (accepting your limits and knowing the kind of care and help you are comfortable with is an important piece of this). Allow the person you are caring for to make as many decisions as they can for themselves if they are competent and they do not unnecessarily compromise their own safety. If other family members & friends can help, try to delegate tasks based on everyone’s abilities, availability and limitations.  Find out about community resources and use them. In addition to family, friends, private and community caregivers, consider using respite services, day programs, transportation programs, volunteers, etc. While learning to share responsibility might be difficult, it’s important to recognize that good care and help can also be provided by people outside the immediate family.

For those who are ‘long-distance caregivers,’ it is especially important to create a group of helpers who are near your loved one and can keep an eye on them through regular physical contact, so they can alert you if something is of concern. It’s far easier to hide/downplay problems on the phone than in person. If you are far away, do make time to go for a visit (as often as you can), check the home for safety issues, and familiarize yourself with health & financial issues. If required, ensure that a support network is in place before you leave to return home. Do what you can to organize paperwork, ensure contact information for helpers, obtain medical information, and complete necessary financial documents to make things easier especially if you are coordinating care from a great distance. As well, there are many new technology-based tools that allow caregivers to monitor their loved ones from a distance. You may want to consider looking into the options available to you in your loved ones’ community, especially if you are not able to visit often.

Caregiving will impact each person differently and can easily result in physical and mental health issues. Stress management may be an important factor in decreasing your risk of illness. By acknowledging your feelings (and accepting that it is completely normal to have all sorts of emotions when you are a caregiver including anger, fear, guilt, frustration, grief, and depression) and recognizing the signs of stress and its impact on you, you will be better able to cope with your situation and seek help before ‘burnout’ occurs. Often being organized decreases stress as well. It might be helpful to create an Emergency File, and a Communication Binder for people assisting with care, that can be in the home of your loved one for all helpers to review and update when they visit.

The stress inherent in caring for someone else can be diminished if you are able to ensure a balance in your life. Prioritize tasks. Ensure that your goals are realistic. Accept that there will be good days and bad days. Do things for yourself every day: eat properly, exercise, sleep and take breaks when you need them. Don’t neglect your own health - if you aren’t feeling well, take the time to seek medical attention. Don’t allow pressure from others or feelings of guilt to force you into doing something that you are not comfortable with or take on more than you can cope with. It really is okay to say ‘no’ if you can’t do something.  It’s important for caregivers to accept and understand that while you might not be able to change the situation, you can control your reaction to it. If you are ‘sandwiched’ between an older generation and a younger still dependent one, do keep in mind the importance of not sacrificing one for the other or your own mental health. Often it is helpful to join a support group of people struggling with similar issues (if it’s not possible for you to go to physical group meetings, you may be able to find an online support network that you can take part in[4]) or to seek out professional help if caregiving is impacting your functioning and health[5].  Keep in mind that in order to ‘give care’ to another person, you need to be in good physical and mental health yourself. It is only through self-care that you can remain well and able to fulfill the incredibly difficult and rewarding role of being a care giver to someone else.

[1] The paper in its entirety can be downloaded at

[2] From: Population Projections for Canada (2013 to 2063), Provinces and Territories (2013 to 2038), p.14, Report prepared for Statistics Canada by the National Projections team – written by Nora Bohnert, Jonathan Chagnon and Patrice Dion, released May 26, 2015.

[3] Compassionate Care Benefits are available to a maximum of 26 weeks through EI benefits for those who take time off to provide care for a “a person of any age who requires end-of-life care”. For information visit You may also want to investigate the Disability Tax Credit available to those with disabilities or “their supporting persons” ( and the Canada Caregiver Credit (


[4] One popular online resource for caregivers is

[5] To locate counselling or support services contact your family doctor, Family Service Association or visit


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59 other articles by Esther Goldstein, B.Sc., B.S.W., RSW