When Caregiving Becomes Caretaking: Warning Signs and What to Do

Caregiving is often experienced as a blessing by those who give care. Whether an individual providing care is seeing to the needs of their elderly parents, a disabled family member, or they provide home care for employment, being a care provider has many rewards.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a caregiver (or carer, as it's called in British English) rather simply; a caregiver is "a person who takes care of a sick or old person at home." While technically true, what that definition is missing are the joys and struggles that accompany caring for loved ones and others who cannot care for themselves.

Caregiving is taxing. It's not uncommon for someone in a caregiver role to delay tending to their own needs or to experience burnout. When this happens, it can be hard to press pause and change the dynamics of what can develop into a codependent or unhealthy relationship with care recipients. Caregiving can actually morph into caretaking, and when it does, disaster can follow.

What is Caretaking Behavior?

Caretaking, as it's being used in this context, is also called "compulsive helping," and it can damage relationships between a caregiver and the recipient(s) of care. People engaged in caretaking behavior can look as though their help is coming from a place of generosity when in reality, they desire to be in control. They are often out of balance and perform caregiver tasks like helping out with activities of daily living (ADLs) for ulterior motives related to their own low self-esteem, burnout, and feelings of stress.

For someone engaged in caretaking behavior, the need to feel needed has become central to their identity.

Warning Signs for Caregivers

Not all caregivers will experience burnout, of course. And not all caregivers will find themselves in a dysfunctional care relationship. That being said, there are warning signs that caregivers should be aware of and look out for.

  • Depression and/or anxiety

  • Excessive substance use or abuse

  • Lying about substance use

  • Worsening mental health

  • An inability to say “no” to care clients or to family members receiving care

  • Using manipulation to achieve ends rather than seeking cooperation from care recipients

  • Always putting others' needs first and sacrificing their own self-care and well-being

  • Disregarding care recipients' boundaries

  • Experiencing feelings of resentment and irritability

  • Struggling to make decisions or to stick to commitments

  • Being more critical or judgmental of self or those being cared for

What to Do When Care of a Person Feels Overwhelming

What should a caregiver do when providing care becomes stressful or overwhelming? When providing care literally takes more from you than you can give to it or than it gives to you?

There are no easy answers. Depending on the situation, some caregivers can seek out respite from other members of their families or from a home care agency. For professionals working in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, or providing senior care for older people still living in their own homes, changing clients or taking a vacation may be enough to bring about positive change.

Additionally, caregivers need to ensure they fulfill the basics of self-care, regardless of how good or bad they feel on a given day. Getting enough sleep, getting movement and exercise throughout the day, eating a variety of nutritious foods, drinking plenty of water—all these mundane ways of caring for one's self can help a carer stay on the healthy side of caregiving.

Are you a caregiver struggling with burnout? Are you drinking more or using substances to cope? Caron offers compassionate and expert care in inpatient and outpatient treatment settings. Reach out for help today.

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