A Good Night’s Rest Provides the Elixir for Caregiver Burnout
Pedro ‘circled the drain’—his life hung in the balance and no one knew for sure how to stop the infections that waged war on his chemo-weakened body. The doctors had started using drugs they thought might work. They also spent long minutes sitting on his bed, staring at him. It’s never a good sign when a doctor takes the time to sit on a patient’s bed.
I felt weary. For six months we had battled cancer, and now this. I numbed myself with food. Praying took too much effort. My friends did the heavy prayer lifting for me. I had no energy to form words and thoughts and sentences.
My uncomfortable chair-posing-as-a-bed in Pedro’s hospital room kept me tossing and turning. Just when I would fall asleep, a nurse would come in to check Pedro’s vitals, or Pedro would start awake, needing something.
The night before, a family friend had arrived to visit. He posed an interesting question that I answered without thinking. “If you could do anyting you wanted to do right now, what would it be?”
I responded with the first thing that popped into my head, “Soak in a hot tub.”
“Why don’t you do it?” he asked. “I’ll stay here with Pedro and you find a hotel with a hot tub.”
I found a place to stay on a bus route, and safely made my way to a small hotel. For the first time in months I luxuriated in a decent night’s sleep. The impersonal hotel room and soothing soak in a bath had worked like balm to my broken thoughts and frantic worry. I had arrived back at the hospital feeling as if I could handle the next second, the next minute, the next hour, the next decision.
Five Minutes on the Phone Undoes A Night of Good
My cell phone buzzed, and I hurried from the room to take the call. I wish I hadn’t. Unkind words poured out of the phone and into my ear from someone I trusted. Someone I thought was safe and on my side berated me with bitter words for what they perceived to be my horrible actions of the night before. They scolded me for spending the night in a hotel. They railed that I would let a ‘stranger’ spend the night in Pedro’s room.
Each hurtful word pierced my heart. Mesmerized, all I could do was listen and pray for wisdom and the ability to not utter hateful words back. After what seemed like hours, I muttered an apology and promised that I would call my tormenter the next time I felt the need for a break or feared I suffered from caregiver burnout.
Broken and wilted once again, I entered Pedro’s room. Our family friend looked up and smiled. “I’m so glad I could come and that you got a good night’s sleep,” he said. “You need to take care of yourself so that you can take care of Pedro.”
I nodded numbly.
“May I pray with you before I leave?” he asked.
I nodded again and bowed my head. As our dear friend lifted Pedro and I up in prayer, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit draw close and pick the broken shards from my wounded heart.
How to Handle Caregiver Burnout (if You’re the Caregiver)
In retrospect, I know I should have done many things differently to avoid caregiver burnout.
- Take time each day to relax. This might look different for each of you. A brisk walk in nature, writing in a journal, praying, listening to uplifting music, or recording beauty with a cell phone camera might provide an oasis of relaxation.
- Make healthy food choices. Overeating will only make you feel more discouraged and burnt out. Eating well is a form of self-care.
- Learn to hang up politely. I should have interrupted the phone call with a polite, “May we talk about this later?” If the caller had answered no, I should have said, “I’m sorry you feel this way. I’d be happy to talk to you about this later.” and then just hang up.
- Remember it’s not about you. That other person was experiencing thier own form of trauma because of Pedro’s illness. Althought the catalog of woes focued on me and all I had supposedly done wrong, in retrospect, I think the caller was really pouring out their worries and grief.
How to Handle Caregiver Burnout (if You Know a Caregiver)
- Watch for signs of burnout: memory loss, inability to make decisions, irritibility, changed behavior, depression, and withdrawal from normal activities.
- Remember your sphere of influence. Take action based on your relationship to the caregiver. Sometimes, it’s easier to hear the hard questions from a friend and not a family member. My family members thought I was fine (mostly because I kept assuring them that I was). It took a family friend to understand the depth of my caregiver burnout.
- Ask. What can you do to ease the burden. Ask the caregiver what one thing they would really like to do and then help them make it so. When others ask, it relieves the fear that caregivers have that they exist in isolation.
- Remember it’s not about you. Don’t feel rejected if the caregiver doesn’t accept your offer of help. You might not be the person God has in mind to serve. Don’t burden caregivers with your opinions on the job they are doing. Think twice (or three or four times) before speaking critically.