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Respite care benefits the whole family

Created date

March 28th, 2014
man in hammock
man in hammock

The American Medical Association estimates that family caregivers provide about 80% of the unpaid care needed for their loved ones who have chronic or terminal illnesses. In many instances, it’s an around-the-clock job with few if any breaks.

A major challenge for family caregivers is understanding when they need a breather. “It can be a particular challenge for a spouse because it’s just the two of you, and you’ve been accustomed to being self-sufficient your whole lives,” says Marina Bravo, L.C.S.W., clinical social worker at United HomeCare, Inc., in Miami, Fla.

But respite care is not a luxury—it’s a necessity for you and your loved one.

Benefits for everyone

Caregiving can be stressful for your body and mind. If your health suffers, you can’t be on top of your game. “Think of how you’re supposed to use oxygen on an airplane,” Bravo says. “Your mask needs to be on before you can assist others.”

A period of respite can be used however you see fit. “Some people feel guilty if they aren’t catching up on errands or taking care of some other type of business,” says Leslie Rigali, D.O., medical director at Brooksby, an Erickson Living community in Peabody, Mass. “But caregivers should take a little time do something just for themselves.” 

Respite is also good for your loved one. It gives them a different routine, the chance to interact with other people, and if it’s outside the home—a change of scenery.

Formal or informal

The increased demand for respite services has led to more options for caregivers. There are structured in-home programs, facility-based day programs, and even short-term institutional care for a period of days or weeks. Respite services can include personal care, skilled health care, homemaker assistance, recreation, or companionship. 

Informal respite can come from a number of volunteers. “When family members, neighbors, or friends offer their help, take them up on it and be as specific as possible about what you need,” Bravo says. “Ask a neighbor to fill in for a few minutes while you run to the bank. Getting out of the house for even just a few minutes can help you keep your perspective.” 

Finding quality care

There are a number of organizations that can help you find respite care (see sidebar). If you are considering facility-based day programs, check your state’s requirements for necessary licensure, certification, and so on. Ask about the staff’s qualifications, and find out exactly what your loved one will be doing while there.

Some programs are specifically designed for people with certain health conditions. Intermissions is a weekday program available at many Erickson Living communities for people in early to moderate stages of dementia-related illnesses. “We base many of our activities around residents’ strengths, talents, and abilities,” says Pamela Fialho, intermissions program director at Brooksby. “Our participants particularly enjoy creative arts, music, poetry, and brain-stimulating games. We start each day with gentle exercise—residents can join in from their chairs if they prefer.”

Although it’s important for you to feel as if your loved one is enjoying themselves, you won’t truly relax unless you know they are safe. “Our staff members are very experienced with the complexities of caring for people with memory loss,” Fialho says. “We talk regularly with caregivers about how things are going and if there have been changes in someone’s functional or cognitive abilities. They know that their loved one is in a nurturing and safe environment.”

If you are interviewing in-home respite-care aides, ask about insurance, references, background, skills, and experience. Give examples of situations that may arise and ask how they would handle them.

Costs associated with respite care vary. Your local area agency on aging is a good place to find programs and financial information. 

Just like doctor’s appointments or grocery shopping, caregivers need to plan respite into their schedule. “Caregivers are our society’s heroes,” Bravo says. “It’s absolutely essential that our heroes stay healthy.”


Respite resources

Alzheimer’s Association


American Cancer Society


Eldercare Locator


Family Caregiver Alliance