Beth Britton writes about the signs of family carer breakdown and what to do if this is affecting you

“All consuming.” “Exhausting.” “Overwhelming.” Just some of the words that can describe being an unpaid family carer. I know, since I was one for my dad.

Most family carers fall into their role rather than actively choosing it, with little or no training or personal/emotional support, and minimal (if any) financial support. It’s no wonder then that carer breakdown happens daily behind closed doors as family carers find the physical and mental demands of caring for a spouse, elderly parents, disabled children or unwell relatives becomes too much. During the current coronavirus pandemic, many family carers have lost key support services; this has been instrumental in more unpaid carers finding they can no longer cope.

Signs that a loved one’s care needs may become overwhelming

Inherently family carers are usually individuals who just ‘soldier on’, driven by their love for the person and a determination to carry on regardless. It is often only with the power of hindsight that family carers identify key points when they went from just about coping to not coping, including:

  • The person being cared for becoming immobile or incontinent.
  • Finding it difficult or impossible to support the person being cared for to eat/drink or take medication.
  • The person’s physical health suddenly declining – for example the person having a stroke or seizure.
  • The person’s mental health declining – for example the person experiencing an acute psychotic episode or suicidal thoughts.
  • An unresolvable breakdown in communication between the person and their family carer.
  • The person’s sleep patterns becoming very erratic.
  • The person nearing the end of their life.

‘Red flags’ that suggest you may be headed for carer breakdown

  • Your physical health is struggling. This may mean:
    • You aren’t eating/drinking properly, perhaps because you don’t have time or your appetite has declined. Or you may be overeating (often on junk food) or using alcohol as a support mechanism because you aren’t coping.
    • You aren’t sleeping well, perhaps because you need to care for your loved one during the night. Or because you are too anxious or worried to sleep even if your loved one is.
    • You are developing back/joint/muscular problems from having to help the person you care for to move.
    • You aren’t looking after your own health condition(s), perhaps not taking medication or attending appointments, or feeling unwell some or all of the time.
  • Your mental health is struggling. This may mean:
    • You feel overwhelmed from everything you are needing to do and remember, leading to acute feelings of stress and exhaustion.
    • You feel depressed, have low mood or feel hopeless, perhaps because you aren’t able to cope with the demands placed upon you or you can’t see a way out of your current situation.
    • You may be anxious, worrying about the person you care for to an extent that you aren’t able to control your anxiety. Your anxiety may be affecting you physically, perhaps with your appetite or sleeping.
    • You may be experiencing feelings of grief or sadness that you cannot resolve, perhaps because the person is deteriorating.

Finding the strength to admit you aren’t coping

It is not an admission of failure or weakness if you are reaching, or have reached, a point of carer breakdown. A lot of spouses feel that having taken vows to care for their partner in sickness and in health, not being able to do so is a failure on their part. Likewise, adult children may feel that becoming overwhelmed helping ageing parents means they’ve let them down.

Whilst these feelings are natural reactions, remember, that as human beings we can only do so much. If as a family carer you become ill, both you and the person you care for will suffer. In this situation, it is in everyone’s best interests to seek professional support. In doing so, it doesn’t mean you won’t be involved in your loved one’s care. Good care providers actively seek to work side-by-side with relatives.

What to do next

Actions to take if you have reached or are reaching carer breakdown will depend on your individual circumstances and how urgently you need help. They might include:

  • Speaking to your GP and/or local council social care department (or social worker if you have one). If you haven’t already had assessments, find out more about these in our blog, ‘Accessing social care for a relative or as a family carer
  • Dialling 111 if you are unable to access your GP, or 999 if you or the person you care for is in a life-threatening situation.
  • Speaking to care providers directly to arrange respite or longer-term care if you/the person you care for are able to pay for this. Respite care comes in many forms, from care homes and residential care through to live-in care. Our blog on respite care may help you.
  • Obtaining further advice from organisations such as Carers UK or Carers Trust.