Make no mistake: the winter blues are a very real phenomenon. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, a full 15% of Canadians experience a dip in their mood around this time of year, with another 2–3% suffering from full-blown seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Right now in Viive’s home province of Ontario, the mood is decidedly dreary. We’ve hardly seen the sun in weeks; it’s bitterly cold outside; and now that the holiday season is officially over and done with, we no longer have all those fun family events to eagerly look forward to. It’s no surprise that so many of us spend January and February feeling extra drowsy, unmotivated, and melancholic.
But for many caregivers, this time of year is especially difficult. Even though caregiving can be incredibly rewarding, it also comes with a lot of challenges. Many caregivers already struggle with sadness, social isolation, fatigue, and guilt — which means that an “average” dose of the winter blues can become a much heavier burden, possibly leading to caregiver burnout.
What is caregiver burnout?
Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that many people experience after providing ongoing care to other people (e.g. young children, older adults, sick or injured loved ones, and more). As fulfilling as it is to support somebody you love, it’s also hard work — often hard work that continues over a long period of time. It can also take a big emotional toll, especially if the person you’re caring for is in poor health.
Signs of caregiver burnout
Caregiver burnout can manifest in many ways, both mental and physical. Here are a few signs to pay attention to:
Mental & emotional symptoms
- You feel depressed, anxious, or irritable a lot of the time.
- You’re having trouble concentrating.
- You find yourself withdrawing from other people.
- You have less and less patience for the person (or people) you’re caring for.
- You’re giving up on hobbies and other activities you used to enjoy.
- You feel hopeless.
- You have much less energy than you used to.
- You’re having trouble falling asleep, or you’re sleeping too much.
- You’re getting sick more often than you used to.
- You feel constantly tired, even after sleeping or resting.
Coping with caregiver burnout through the winter
First and foremost: if the list of signs and symptoms above sounds familiar, talk to your doctor or another medical professional. They are in the best position to help you get the care you need.
Apart from seeking medical support, there are a few changes you can make to ensure that your needs are getting met over the winter months. Here are just a few recommendations that might be useful.
Join a support group
You’re not alone in going through caregiver burnout. A lot of people have been there — and there are resources available to help, from online forums to support groups. Check out https://www.caregiverexchange.ca/ to see what services are available in your local area, and to access online support.
Let the light in
The lack of sunshine this time of year is a big contributor to our low moods. While there’s no substitute for the real deal, over-the-counter vitamin D supplements can make a difference. Light therapy — i.e. sitting in front of a special fluorescent lamp that simulates sunlight — is also useful for many people.
Also try to get in the habit of keeping blinds and curtains open, as well as going for brief walks every day if you can.
Make self-care a part of your Plan
When we think about Aging & End of Life Planning, we (understandably) tend to focus on the person who is doing the aging: where Grandma will live as she gets older, what’s written in her Last Will & Testament, things like that. But it’s also important to factor in the people who will be taking care of the aging individual. Caregivers have needs too, and we need to plan for those to be taken care of as well!
What does this mean for you? First of all, if you’re not already, start taking your own needs as a caregiver seriously. It’s easy to brush off your own physical, mental, and emotional needs… until you burn out. At that point, it’s going to get a lot harder for you to function at all, and that includes taking care of other people.
Put more simply: Self-care doesn’t just benefit you. It benefits your loved ones too. If you have trouble giving yourself permission to focus on yourself, consider this your permission slip.
Once you’ve embraced the importance of self-care as a caregiver, you can sit down and take inventory of your holistic routine — both caregiving-related tasks and all the other things you have going on. If you’re not sure where to start, one easy way to approach this is to list out all the tasks on your plate and divide them into “Need to do’s” and “Want to do’s.” Also include how much time each task will take up in a given day or week. Don’t forget to include time for the bare necessities, including sleeping, eating, resting, and some gentle exercise.
Once you’re done with your inventory, do a couple of quick calculations:
1) Tally up the time required to get through your “Need to do’s.” Do you actually have enough time in the week to accomplish all of them? If not, that’s a pretty strong sign that you need to adjust your Plan a little bit.
2) Even if you do technically have enough time for your “Need to do” list, what about your “Want to do’s”? Are you really okay with having only an hour or two each week for hobbies, or socializing, or even just watching TV? If not, then that’s another sign that we need to bring in some extra support.