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Caregiver Burnout and The Theory of Everything

Caregiver Burnout and The Theory of Everything

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Shannon Haragan, LPC Intern and MFA in Acting

One thing is pretty clear: Stephen Hawking is a badass. I know little to nothing about theoretical physics or black holes, but the more I learn about this man’s life, the more I am absolutely amazed by his staggering intellect, fortitude, and sense of humor in the face of incredible physical obstacles. The Theory of Everything, starring the amazing Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, shows us much of Hawking’s personal story, including his scientific pursuits, his diagnosis with ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease), and his fight to defy the odds both personally and in the scientific world, ultimately reshaping the landscape of theoretical physics. Before I saw this film, I told a friend I was on my way to see “that Stephen Hawking movie.” At its most basic level, yes, this film is about Stephen Hawking, but the true heart of this story centers on Hawking’s relationship with Jane Wilde Hawking, his first wife. 

Where there is life, there is hope.

The screenplay was adapted from Jane’s memoir, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. Early on, the film beautifully depicts their meeting, courtship, and his devastating diagnosis at the age of 21, when Hawking was told by his doctors that he had just two years to live. Here is where we are quickly introduced to Jane’s strength, tenacity, and faith, in more ways than one. Though Stephen initially gave up hope for having any future together, Jane’s courage and determination proved to be be enough for both of them: I want us to be together for as long as we’ve got and if that’s not very long, well then, that’s just how it is. It’ll have to do.

Jane’s initial commitment to fight for Stephen’s life and their marriage is clear, but what she believes will be a two-year commitment becomes many more (25, in fact). As Stephen’s health and physical abilities steadily decline, Jane’s role evolves to from gifted PhD student and girlfriend, to wife and mother, finally to full-time caregiver, putting aside her own ambitions in order to care for Stephen and their three children. Another film might have chosen to portray Jane as something of an unscathed saint or martyr. Thankfully, this film allows us to see Jane’s humanity as she attempts to overcome her very real personal struggles. As she approaches the limits of her physical and emotional abilities, we witness the beginnings of her unraveling, as the burdens and sacrifices required in her role as full-time caregiver begin to be too much. 

According to The National Alliance for Caregiving, 65.7 million caregivers make up 29% of the U.S. adult population providing care to someone who is ill, disabled, or aged–and these number are expected to increase. In other words, about a third of the people reading these words (and the people who aren’t) are either currently caregivers or will be at some point during their lifetime. Caregiving can reap great rewards for many, but it can also cause high degrees of stress, leading to “caregiver burnout,” negatively impacting one’s physical, emotional, and mental health in significant ways. 

Some common signs of caregiver burnout include:

  • Social isolation, or a consistent lack of desire to see close family and friends
  • Anhedonia: previously pleasurable activities don’t bring the same degree of pleasure anymore
  • Unusual sleeping and/or eating patterns
  • Colds or other illnesses that are more frequent or last longer than usual
  • Negligence or hatred of caregiving duties
  • Substance misuse

A lack of control, unrealistic expectations and role confusion can all contribute to stress and eventual burnout. Some ideas to help prevent caregiver burnout :

  • Make your physical needs a priority: eat nutritious meals, get enough sleep and exercise regularly.
  • Seek out social support. Take time to talk with friends, either in person or on the phone.
  • Research apps for caregivers such as StandWith, which helps recruit social media connections to help with errands and daily tasks in real time. Other apps include Caregiver’s Touch, Elder 411 and  Balance.
  • Accept help. Be ready with a list of jobs others could help you with, and when they offer, let them choose how they’d like to help.
  • Arrange adult day care or temporary care from a respite program.
  • Join a support group or see a mental health professional.
  • Connect with community resources: Home health aids, geriatric care managers, mobile health services and volunteers from faith-based or civic organizations.
  • Recognize your own limits and learn to set boundaries.
  • Watch movies and TV shows that are uplifting, carry messages of hope, and/or temporarily transport you to a very different world from your own.

When caring for others, it is critical that caregivers first take care of themselves. Flight attendants know what they’re talking about: Put the oxygen mask on yourself before attempting to assist anybody else. When a caregiver’s needs are taken care of, the people being cared for will benefit, as well. If you are a caregiver and need help with anything, you can contact us to make a counseling appointment. We also have more information on our adult counseling service page. If you would like read more posts on movies related to mental health, you can read Reel Therapy: Mental Health in Movies, What’s so Great about Gatsby?, and Why the Imitation Game Matters.

Sources: National Alliance for Caregiving, CaregiverSupport.com, AARP.org

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