Self-care when you care for others

If you need to care for a loved one you will need to avoid carer burnout syndrome.

If you’re the type of selfless carer who puts everyone else’s needs ahead of your own, consider the old saying: 'you can’t pour from an empty cup'. Here's how to avoid the very real problem of burning out while caring for someone you love.

By Margaret McKay

A carer’s self-care is yet another gift that keeps on giving.

Yet a carer’s cup cannot afford to run dry. If a carer falls apart, the person who relies on them for care will likely suffer. Carers also need to be fit and strong to enjoy life and be a role model for others, including the person they provide care for.

It’s very easy as caregivers to inadvertently become entrenched in the demanding role, losing sight of the fact that carers cannot be the sole solution to every challenge.

Coping with carer burnout syndrome

Burnout for carers is very real.

Research published in the Australian Journal of General Practice in 2015 found 27% of carers had high psychological distress. Nearly half of the primary carers’ physical or emotional wellbeing had changed due to their caring role.

Self-soothing behaviours like prolonged TV watching, having a few too many tipples, compulsive shopping, or comfort eating can be the first signs that burnout is on its way.  Prioritising exercise, quality sleep, nutritious eating, and maintaining social connections, all contribute to rejuvenation and building lasting resilience.

It’s also often the case that carer-givers may not even realise they are in fact carers. 

Carers come in all genders and ages but women  make up the greater portion. In 2019, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that: ‘females were more likely to be carers (12.3% of all females) than males (9.3% of all males). 3.5% of all Australians were primary carers. Seven in 10 (71.8%) primary carers were women’.

In 2024, more than 2.5 million Australians – or 1 in 9 – identify as a carer, though how many more carers are out there who are informally helping people they love without giving themselves the label? With our population increasingly ageing, we can expect the number of carers to grow exponentially.

Unpaid caring is hard - but there is support

A Human Rights Commission report found vast numbers of unpaid carers not only miss out on an income and potentially their own quality of life, but also on superannuation.

The Carer Gateway was established with a website and phone help line (1800 422 737) for carers to access support in a range of areas like:

  • Peer support groups – To connect with other carers who share similar caregiving experiences. Attend in-person or online support groups to exchange stories, knowledge, insights and practical advice. 
  • Tailored support packages – Access practical assistance tailored to your needs. These packages may include planned respite services and transportation support. 
  • Counselling services – When feelings of stress, anxiety, sadness, or frustration arise, consider in-person or phone counselling. Speak with a trained counsellor from the comfort of your home for coping strategies specific to your caregiving journey.
  • Emergency respite – Life can be unpredictable. If you suddenly find yourself unable to provide care due to illness or injury, service providers offer emergency respite. They’ll ensure the person you care for receives care while you recover.

About respite care

If you’re burned out, well-meaning people will tell you to plan a holiday.

This may seem easier to say than do, but there’s nothing like getting away to recharge and re-energise. Enlist friends, family, or volunteers to provide in-home services. They might even be open to extending the temporary arrangement to occasional or regular support. If that option is unavailable, then, respite care is designed to support both the recipient of care and the carer during short periods.

Respite offers a valuable break for both parties and provides an opportunity to connect with new people. The type of respite care depends on each specific situation. It can be available for a few hours, a few days, or longer, and can be provided either in the home, within the community, or at an aged care facility.

Typically, respite care is planned in advance, for example, if you, the carer, is preparing for a trip or has an appointment to attend. However, it’s also accessible during emergencies or unexpected circumstances.

The Australian government subsidises residential respite care for up to 63 days in a financial year (1 July to 30 June), subject to availability and eligibility. It’s possible to be granted an additional extension of 21 days with approval – details follow.

The word 'respite' means a short period of relief = and the Australian government will fund respite care for up to 63 days in a year for eligible people.

Accessing respite care involves a few steps:

Eligibility check for respite

To receive government-funded respite services, start by determining your eligibility. You can do this by answering a few simple questions using the eligibility checker tool on the My Aged Care website or you can call My Aged Care directly on 1800 200 422 for personal assistance. 

Types of respite 

Respite care comes in various forms, depending on needs and eligibility:

  • Emergency respite care: If the primary carer is unexpectedly unable to provide care (due to their illness, urgent situation, or other reasons), emergency respite care can step in. Contact the Carer Gateway at 1800 422 737 for assistance.
  • Flexible respite in home: This can be provided during the day or overnight. A paid carer comes to the home, allowing the usual carer to take a short break. It falls under the Commonwealth Home Support Programme.
  • Care outside your home - centre-based respite: Available during the day, it allows interaction with others at day centres, clubs, or residential settings. Transport to and from the centre may be included.
  • Care outside your home - cottage respite: Offers overnight or weekend care in aged care facilities or community settings other than the carer’s or patient’s home.

As you pour love and care into others, replenishing your own cup is not selfish — it’s essential.

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