Caregivers Need Care, Too

Seniors dancing at adult care center
Married for more than 50 years, Sandra Fuchs’ parents were used to relying on each other. When her mother developed multiple health problems over the years, “Dad was Mom’s main caregiver,” says Fuchs, a mother of three young children.
But in 2002, her father developed brain cancer, and suddenly Fuchs found herself caring for both parents. It has been quite a juggling act, says Fuchs. “You want to keep them at home as much as possible,” she says. “They raised me and gave me everything, and now it’s my turn to do for them.”

But nobody said it was easy. If you’re a caring for a chronically ill older person or someone who is disabled, you’re “on call” 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. And if you add children to the equation, it’s enough to put a woman right over the top. At some point, you’ll need a breather. It’s called respite, and you shouldn’t be embarrassed to take it.

A Much-needed Break

Respite provides caregivers a break from their daily responsibilities. It might involve medical or social adult day care and/or a short-term stay in a nursing home or assisted-living facility for the loved one; a home health aide or home health companion; a private-duty nurse or adult foster care. “You have to call in the troops” at a certain point, says Fuchs, who at various times has hired part-time cleaning and cooking help for her parents, asked for help from a cousin, and arranged for short-term convalescent home care for her mother.

Respite care can provide a short break so that a caregiver can go to a doctor’s appointment or head to the grocery store—or provide time for something as simple as a nap or a bath, the opportunity to attend a church service, see a movie, visit friends, or take a brief vacation. For women with children, it means being able to attend a school play or a ballet recital—or just to have some “down” time with the family.

There are many options, says Judith Diamond, director of community relations for Concepts for Living, a free residential placement service for seniors in Southern California. She says adult day care can be particular helpful for both the parent and the caregiver.

“Options for caregivers during the day can include church-related or city-sponsored senior programs, adult day care centers and adult day health centers,” says Diamond. At these centers an older adult can attend a program from 4 to 8 hours a day during the week. Activities include current-events discussions, entertainment, board games, cards, dancing, and arts and crafts. “Some programs include transportation to and from the centers.”

Covering Costs

Some of the costs of such care can be covered through Medicaid and some insurance plans, Diamond says. “Also, some insurance plans do cover short-term respite care in skilled nursing facilities while a family is on vacation anywhere from one week to 10 days,” she adds. “The other option is to hire a caregiver who can stay in your home during your time you’re away.” 

Caregivers can burn out if not given the support they need, says Diamond. Whether it be a week of respite to attending a caregiver support group (offered through hospitals, adult day care centers, places of worship, senior centers, etc.), people need to know they’re not alone. Some community programs offer caregiver retreats that focus on dealing with stress, encouraging the use of community resources, developing skills to maintain their own health and welfare, reducing their own personal isolation, but most of all leaving their environment for a day or two.  

If a caregiver’s life is negatively being affected because of his or her role as a caregiver, it may be time to think of alternatives to the current living situation. “Older spouses who become caregivers can burn out quite easily, if not given support,” says Diamond. “I have had several clients who were spouses to loved ones suffering from dementia. I’ve had others who risked their own health attempting to assist a spouse who had fallen. If a caregiver feels isolated in their own home situation, this can adversely affect the relationship between caregiver and loved one,” she adds. “Caregivers are truly the unsung heroes of today’s family, whether they be a spouse, a child, or even a grandchild.”

How to Locate Help

Your local agency on aging is one of the first resources to check out. (Almost every state has such an agency. In a few states, the U.S. Administration on Aging serves this purpose.) Check the city- or county-government sections of your phone book under “Aging” or “Social Services.”

The U.S. Administration on Aging supports a nationwide, toll-free information and assistance directory called the Eldercare Locator, which can locate the appropriate local agency to help with respite care. Older persons and caregivers can call the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116, Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET.

For more information, visit the U.S. Administration on Aging.