Ring My Bell

Recognizing Caregiver Burnout

Most people have heard of or studied Pavlov’s theory of conditioning, also known as classical conditioning. In simple terms, it is when a conditioned stimulus (ie a bell) is paired with an unconditional stimulus (ie a dog salivating anticipating he will get a treat).  Well Mr Pavlov, I am that dog. 

While being a caregiver to my parents over the years, I used to get phone calls at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes it was just pure disorientation – a 2am call asking me if I was coming over to visit, and other times, it was something serious and involved an ambulance.

As the years went by, the calls got more and more frequent. I felt guilty for not answering and at the same time that ringing sound made my gut hurt. The moment I realized that I had a classical case of conditioning was when I was watching Game of Thrones (keep reading, you’ll understand why)…

Game of Thrones alert

I was hooked on Game of Thrones. I watched it religiously, had conversations at work about it and even used to get up in the morning disturbed by the show the night before. Obsessed you say…hell ya!  I was so into it that even my ringtone for my parents was GoT! So you could imagine that those frequent calls from parents had me hearing GoT all day and all night.

We were settling down one night to watch one of the last episodes of the series. I got up to make a tea and the program started. I heard the theme song and I started to get a pain in my gut…”they are calling me again…now what”. Out of habit, I went for my cell phone to answer but it wasn’t an incoming call, it was the start of the show.

“…I started to get a pain in my gut…”they are calling me again…now what!!”

When we take care of a loved one that is slowly declining, certain things or situations start to condition us. Our bodies react, whether it becomes an emotional reaction or physical, it is our mind giving us a sign. For me, it was the first sign that I was suffering from caregiver burning out. 

The exhaustion of constantly being on “alert mode”, expecting something to happen, an emergency situation or even just feeling guilty that the person you are caring for is feeling insecure and wants to see you. 

Consistently being in that “alert mode” is emotionally exhausting and I would say even more so than anything physical I had done. You can’t just rest and feel better from an emotional burnout. It takes more than just an afternoon at the spa. In fact, any leisure time seemed to add more to my exhaustion because it made that guilt even greater. You can only understand this once you’ve lived it.

Hindsight is 20/20

In hindsight, I should have gotten outside help before that sick feeling in my gut set in – have someone that could come in for a few hours to take care of little things and I could turn that ringer off for a while. Find some balance before the conditioning set in.  In the end, I managed to watch all of Game of Thrones (very disappointed with the finale by the way) and I’m relieved that the series is over. Since then, I have changed my ringtone. I have also learned a valuable lesson…never make your favourite show your ringtone.

My phone just beeped…. I’m going to get myself a snack.

Karine Saba, co-founder of Care4giver and more importantly a natural caregiver for parents with dementia for over 10 years. 

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