We love our elders. That is why we care for them, even if it means we are on call or on duty around the clock. We would not have it any other way—knowing we can be there when they need us is reward enough.
That is all true in a perfect world, but we do not live in a perfect world. Although family caregivers are a tough and dedicated bunch, we are only human after all.
The Impact of Caregiving
The daily wear and tear of providing hands-on care adds up. Caregiver stress can have detrimental physical and emotional effects that last long after one’s role ends. According to a joint report published by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, those providing 21 hours of care or more on a weekly basis are more likely to report symptoms of physical strain like loss of sleep, loss of appetite, increased pain and worsened headaches.
Caregiving’s emotional impact is significant as well. Symptoms can include:
- Physical and emotional isolation, since caregivers spend the majority of their time with their care recipients.
- Depression, exhaustion, anxiety and a sense of feeling perpetually overwhelmed.
- Resentment and compassion fatigue that can jeopardize not only your own mental health but also the quality of care your loved one receives.
- Caregiver guilt, self-punishment or self-denial, where you believe you have wronged someone or that something you did was horrible.
Left unchecked, these difficult feelings can lead to caregiver burnout and serious health issues. To prevent this from occurring, respite must be part of your care plan. When you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t provide quality care for anyone else.
What Is Respite Care?
Respite services provide a temporary reprieve from elder care responsibilities. Building regular respite into a care plan is a healthy choice for caregivers and their care recipients, but it can also make it easier to quickly arrange back-up care in emergency situations.
Your well-being may not seem related to that of your loved one, but it is actually very closely intertwined. Did you ever notice that people with important, high-stress careers still manage to make time for themselves? They may work long hours, but they know that if they don’t take some time to step away and recharge every so often, poor job performance and burnout could occur. It’s no different for family caregivers.
Types of Respite Care Services
For some family caregivers, the hard part may not be admitting the need for rest. Instead, they may not know how to get respite care they know they desperately need. There are plenty of professionals, volunteers, organizations and businesses that can help you locate the right respite resources for yourself and your loved one. You just have to do some research and know where to look. Start by exploring some of the options below.
Home care companies provide a broad range of non-medical services to help you get that much-needed break. In addition to caring for your loved one, they can also help with transportation to doctor’s appointments, shopping and errands, laundry, light housekeeping, and meal preparation. Some companies also offer skilled services known as home health care. In-home care services are flexible and highly customizable, so you can arrange to take an entire day off once a week or just sneak out for a couple hours every so often to tend to your own medical appointments, see a movie or meet a friend for a bite to eat.
Adult Day Care
Adult day care centers are places where seniors can go to be looked after while their caregivers work, run errands or simply take a break. Adult day care services provide a safe, secure and social environment for older adults to visit for a few hours or a full day. There are different types of adult day care that fit patients’ specific needs. For example, some centers offer adult day health care, which includes health monitoring services and medication administration during the day, while others do not offer medical care and focus on providing social opportunities and recreational activities.
Temporary Stays at Senior Living
For caregivers who plan to go out of town and need a place for their loved one to stay, short-term stays at senior living communities may be an option. Some assisted living residences and independent living communities offer “temporary stay services.” During their stay, the senior has access to the same services as full-time residents, including meals, on-site amenities, a calendar of social activities, transportation services, in-room emergency call systems, around-the-clock staff availability and more. Temporary stays are also an excellent way for seniors to get a preview of what senior living is truly like. Some older adults may be more open to the idea of touring long-term care communities under the pretense that it is not a permanent arrangement.
Geriatric Care Managers
If you feel overwhelmed by all the complex decisions that must be made about a loved one’s care, a geriatric care manager (GCM) may be a valuable addition to your care team. Also known as Aging Life Care Professionals, GCMs are often licensed social workers or nurses. The Aging Life Care Association (ALCA), a nonprofit organization that oversees these elder care experts, requires its members to be licensed in their fields, be trained in geriatrics and adhere to its guidelines for professional conduct. GCMs can help compose a care plan, seek out and evaluate care options, locate financial assistance, advocate for seniors and their families, and much more.
Respite Care for Hospice Patients
Seniors who are terminally ill and qualify for hospice care covered by Medicare are entitled to a certain amount of inpatient respite care on an occasional basis. This allows family caregivers to enjoy up to five days of respite at a time while their loved ones are cared for in a Medicare-approved facility like a hospital, hospice facility or nursing home. Medicare beneficiaries who are eligible for hospice may need to pay five percent of the Medicare-approved amount for inpatient respite care.
Hospital Patient Advocates
If your loved one is hospitalized and you are unsure where to turn with your questions about inpatient and outpatient care, contact the hospital’s patient advocate. Advocates, whose services are provided free of charge, are there to provide support and resources for patients and their families in these specific situations, so don’t be shy. Seek them out.
Senior Centers offer older people a safe environment where they can take part in a range of activities led by trained personnel. Some of these organizations provide respite care, “visits” via telephone, in-home visitors, nursing home visitors, home health aides, support groups, adult day care, and information and referrals for accessing other services available in the community. Contact the Senior Center nearest you for more detailed information.
Countless programs around the country use volunteers to provide caregiving services to families when respite care is needed just for a few hours. Low income may or may not be a requirement for receiving services.
For example, sitter and companion services are sometimes provided by civic organizations, such as AmeriCorps Seniors, faith communities and other local groups. A regular sitter or companion can provide friendly respite care for a few hours once or twice a week and expand a senior’s social circle. Make sure that the sitter/companion you choose has passed a background check and is trained in what to do if an emergency occurs in your absence. Local Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) can typically arrange services or provide referrals to other respite care programs in your area.
Friends and Family
Consider calling on your friends and family members for the help you may need. They care about you but may not know exactly how they can contribute. Don’t be afraid to ask. If they offer to help, be sure to communicate with them about what would be most useful. If your neighbor wants to bring you dinner, but you already have that handled, ask them to complete another task instead, such as picking up your loved one’s prescriptions or just coming over for a cup of coffee and a chat. (Emotional respite is equally as important as time away from caregiving!)
Sometimes phone applications and computer programs can make coordinating efforts much easier. For example, Lotsa Helping Hands is an easy-to-use, private group calendar specifically designed for organizing help. Caregivers can invite their family, friends and neighbors to join their care team and then post requests for specific tasks, such as meals and transportation, on the calendar. Members of your community can then volunteer to pitch in with these requests and directly lighten your workload.
When searching for respite options, consider contacting your city, county and state social service agencies for help. Even if you think you may not qualify for specific services, these agencies might be able to make referrals to other programs and organizations that can be of assistance.
Offices that may offer helpful services and additional information include:
- Area Agencies on Aging
- Eldercare Locator
- Health and Human Services Departments
- Social Service Departments
- Public Health Departments
- Medical Boards
- Mental Health Departments
An online forum or support group may provide the mental, emotional and social respite that gets you through the day. Strong online communities allow people with shared interests to connect with one another to share tips, advice and challenges. Best of all, an online caregiver forum is available when you are– allowing you to interact with other caregivers 24/7 from the comfort of home.
How to Choose a Respite Provider
Some states require licensing and/or certification for certain types of respite providers. If your state does not, it is even more important to do your own thorough background and qualifications check, especially if you intend to seek respite from individuals who are not associated with a larger company or organization. Most larger providers conduct background and reference checks for their employees and volunteers, but it is important to ask about their vetting process. Here is a quick checklist to use when considering a provider:
- Screen and interview providers by telephone.
- Meet in person before starting services.
- Ask for references.
- Check references and criminal background.
- Evaluate costs and payment methods.
- Inquire about provider policies and protocols.
- Obtain a contract that provides specific details about the arrangement.
Remember, there’s no set formula for when respite is needed or what type is best. Your version may be a daily phone call with a friend while your loved one naps, or it could be a weekend away with your spouse once a month. The possibilities are as unique as you and your situation. Any type of respite can be considered successful if your loved one continues to receive quality care and supervision in your absence, allowing you to get a well-deserved break.