Caregivers of older adults are some of the most selfless people in the world.

They sacrifice time, money and energy to assist an elderly loved one. But is it possible to be too selfless as a caregiver? Absolutely, and it can have grave consequences.

Caregivers experience more illnesses and injuries than their counterparts in the same age group who are not providing care to dependent loved ones. Once a family member commits to care for an older loved one, it is common for the caregiving to consume that person’s life . Eventually some caregivers believe they are the only ones who can care properly for their family member. Tunnel-vision takes over and caregiving becomes their identities.

Unfortunately, more often than not, caregivers do the job alone, without significant help from others. There are major consequences to being a caregiver, particularly to a solo provider. Caregivers and those who love caregivers need to understand that too much selflessness inevitably leads to martyr syndrome. Caregiver martyr syndrome can be identified by the manifestation of emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual, social and financial symptoms.

Physical Symptoms of Martyr Syndrome

Often the first symptom of caregiver martyr syndrome is physical problems. The caregiver may struggle with headaches, stomach problems, muscle tension and excessive fatigue. The caregiver is likely not sleeping or eating well. Exercise has gone out the window. Ironically, while this is happening the caregiver is typically focusing intently on the medical problems of the older loved one.

Instead of seeking help from their own doctors, caregivers are frequently cancelling and rescheduling their own regular check-ups as well as sick appointments. While they would not dream of treating their loved ones’ health so casually, caregivers are often downright negligent about their own wellbeing.

Financial Symptoms of Martyr Syndrome

Even if the elderly loved one is completely financially independent, caregivers may find themselves struggling with financial concerns. A caregiver employed outside the home is more likely to reduce hours or even consider resigning or retiring early to ensure care for the loved one remains uninterrupted.

When the older loved one has limited funds, the caregiver frequently will pay for necessities and even little luxuries that will improve quality of life for the senior. This obviously reduces resources available for the caregiver and her immediate family which can lead to financial difficulties and potentially resentment.

Spiritual Symptoms of Martyr Syndrome

Most Americans describe themselves as spiritual, religious or both. Caregivers regularly experience interruptions to their plans for religious services or spiritual routines. Some caregivers experience these issues more subtly than others. For example, a Catholic caregiver whose Sunday Mass schedule is interrupted because of her mother’s needs may notice before a caregiver who has gradually stopped meditating regularly.

People rely on spiritual practices like yoga, meditating, prayer and religious services to help them deal with stress, uncertainty, and to increase inner strength. While caregiving, people need their spiritual practices more than ever, but during this time they are likely to be minimized or even abandoned totally.

Social Symptoms of Martyr Syndrome

If a caregiver cannot remember the last time she did something fun with others, social symptoms of martyr syndrome are present. Is the caregiver turning down lunch or dinner invitations with friends? Perhaps the caregiver is taking care of her husband and she doesn’t want to go out without him, worried about being a third wheel with other couples.

Caregivers who have abandoned previously enjoyable activities like golf, biking, movies, book club or playing cards are in the process of isolating themselves. This is detrimental because socialization and scheduled breaks from the dependent loved one are so beneficial during this stressful time.

Emotional Symptoms of Martyr Syndrome

Caregivers often experience feelings of anger, resentment, guilt, frustration, sadness and loneliness. Caregivers who are feeling bombarded by negative feelings on a daily basis, especially when they don’t acknowledge or discuss them, are suffering from martyr syndrome. What’s worse: the caregiver often will feel “badly” about the presence of negative feelings which leads to a distressing emotional cycle.

Psychological Symptoms of Martyr Syndrome

Caregivers with a history of mental health concerns like clinical depression and anxiety disorders find themselves susceptible to increased symptoms while providing care for a loved one. Even those who have sought treatment for such conditions may find themselves struggling when triggered with excessive caregiving stress.

Because of their responsibilities, caregivers can be reluctant to seek treatment, even when they know that old symptoms are flaring up. The stress of caregiving can also trigger brand new mental health diagnoses. Since caregivers are focusing on their loved one’s medical issues, contacting a doctor about new mental health symptoms is often last on their list. Denial, particularly for those who have never suffered with a mental health concern previously, also contributes to the lack of seeking treatment.

How To Avoid & Get Out Of Martyr Syndrome

What can be done to pull a caregiver from the depths of martyr syndrome? It can be a real struggle. Often the caregivers are in denial about their “over-commitment” to caregiving. A useful exercise for caregivers can be carefully considering each symptom category: physical, social, financial, spiritual, emotional, and psychological. What kind of issues are they having within each category?

If the caregiver is not open to doing this, friends and family members can gently point out the areas of concern. When friends and family members do this along with an offer to reduce the caregiver’s load, it can sometimes be effective. Friends and family must understand, however, that it may take several offers of help before the caregiver accepts. It can be very difficult for some caregivers to let go and begin to free themselves from martyr syndrome.

Another option for friends and family members of the caregiver is to enlist the help of other professionals who may be able to convince the caregiver to lighten the load. Friends and family can always contact the caregiver’s physician, financial planner, clergyperson or psychotherapist to share their concerns. While these professionals won’t be able to share information back with the friends and family due to confidentiality, often they are willing to accept information about the caregiver. Often a caregiver will take a warning from a professional more seriously than they will from friends or family.

If friends and family members of a caregiver are unable to offer direct help, there are many resources in the community that can provide hands-on help to a caregiver. Each of the following national organizations can link a caregiver to local services all over the country:

www.n4a .org links caregivers to local city and county Area Agencies. Every jurisdiction in the United States is mandated to have an Area Agency on Aging (AAA) which is the first place a caregiver for an older loved one should check for help. They can link caregivers to both free and paid services. links caregivers to support groups and services for those dealing with permanent dementia diagnoses. links caregivers to adult day care centers in the community. links caregivers to private geriatric care managers, typically nurses and social workers, who assist with managing care of an older loved one.

Senior caregiving is a noble undertaking but is not a job for one person. What happens to the older patients when their overextended caregivers are hospitalized or even die prematurely? In order to prevent this common scenario, it is critical for caregivers shake the martyr syndrome.

Mature market expert and gerontologist Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C.
Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C, CSP is a speaker and consultant on age diversity, older customers, caregiving & dementia. She is the President of Jenerations Health Education & an Instructor at Johns Hopkins University. For more information please visit

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