Caring for the Caregiver: Tips for Preventing Burnout

**By Bethany Davis, LSWAIC**

As a clinical social worker who supports people living with cancer, I help patients navigate a very difficult time in their lives. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: The caregivers I meet, whether spouses, family members or friends, often need support too. With the health care environment focused on the patient, caregivers can struggle to communicate with their loved one, process their own emotions or allow for any self-care.

Holding hands, Parkinson diseaseCaregiver burnout is real. Stress that leads to burnout can occur when caregivers aren’t armed with the skills and support to maintain their mental, physical and emotional health.  Anger and resentment are complicated but common emotions that can overwhelm the caregiver while facing a loved one’s unpredictable health condition.

I’ve seen caregiver burnout take many forms. People who can’t see a path out of the constant stress talk about moving away, or engage in risky behavior to dull their anxiety. I have (literally) run into caregivers in the hallway suffering panic attacks, who can’t absorb what I’m saying about self-care, let alone do it.

If you are a caregiver that identifies with these feelings, rest assured you are in good company. But here are three practical things all caregivers can try for easing the stress of caregiving and preventing burnout.

Improve Communication by Asking Questions

When a caregiver or the person being cared for makes an unchecked assumption, misunderstandings and resentment can occur. Thinking you know what a loved one really wants without asking can sometimes be more harmful than helpful.

For example, you’re caring for John, and you assume John expects you to prepare a big breakfast because he’s in treatment. But the case might be that John actually enjoys the daily activity of making his own breakfast and values his independence.

If John wants to make his own breakfast, let him. A simple way to find out what might be of real help would be to ask in the morning, “John, what do you need today?”

This will prevent feelings of a wasted effort and the potential for resentment if you communicate about how the person wants to be helped. Don’t assume, ask.

Build in Activities that You Can Enjoy Alone 

This is all about self-care and individual preference, and could be anything from getting a massage to reading your favorite magazine, or even cleaning out a closet. The key is to actually schedule the activity.

Try writing your planned activity down, including the date and time, which makes it more likely you’ll follow through. Consider creating a frequency for an activity, such as reading your new book for 25 minutes at lunchtime on designated days. The important thing is to choose things you really enjoy that are relaxing for you, whatever they may be.

Extend Your Compassion to Someone Important: YOU

No one can be prepared for the ups and downs of caregiving, as no one can predict the physical, mental or emotional changes that happen during someone’s illness and treatment. The perfect caregiver doesn’t exist. Focusing on your strengths and your motivations for caregiving in the first place can help you see yourself and your efforts in a more positive light.

LetterIf you don’t know where to start, try writing a caring letter to yourself. Note what you’ve accomplished and what you continue to do well. If a letter seems too demanding, make a list of your strengths or what you appreciate about yourself.

Need a faster pick-me-up? Try speaking or writing these affirmations:

  • Though I currently care for and care about “John,” I can still hold space to care for and nurture myself.
  • Though I currently care for and care about “John,” I am only responsible for my own emotions and well-being in the long run.
  • I am enough.

Need an even faster pick-me-up? Get a hug. If it’s comfortable for you, physical touch can be powerful and healing. Asking for a hug from a friend or family member can leave an immediate and lasting impact. If that’s not an option, intentionally wrapping yourself tightly in a warm blanket or snuggling a pillow can be nurturing as well.

Please remember: if you are feeling a change in mood that doesn’t go away despite your efforts, it may be time to call a supportive friend or connect with a mental health provider.

One More Thing: You Are Amazing

If no one has told you this yet, I will be the first: You are doing a great job. I’ll say it again: You are doing a great job. To say caregiving is hard is a colossal understatement, and doesn’t begin to describe the emotional and physical mountains you are climbing. It takes empathy, patience and a true heart to nurture and carry those who need us. And it takes caring for ourselves.

Bethany.DavisBethany Davis, LSWAIC, is an Oncology Social Worker who enjoys writing. She is currently teaching a class titled “Powerful Tools for Caregivers” on Friday mornings in the Lindeman Pavilion, Virginia Mason Seattle Medical Center.  


  1. Leya Moskowitz says:

    Thank you

  2. These tips regarding care for caregivers are really great. When a person faces health issues in their lives, their caregivers, family etc. also faces many problems and mental imbalance. Supporting them can be such a great thing. You are doing a great work by providing these tips here.
    Dentistry Longmont


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