Respite: What It Is, What It Isn't


by Edyth Ann Knox
More About Edyth Ann…

Almost all caregivers all have questions about "respite." Respite is defined as "temporary relief, as from work or pain." The need for respite for a caregiver is vital to their well being. Many of us took respite for granted before we were caregivers to our elderly loved ones: as mothers of young children we took respite. But now, we feel guilty even considering taking time for ourselves from our elder caregiving responsibilities.

Too often when a caregiver takes respite she doesn't benefit from it as she should. Honestly, there are different ways to get some much-needed respite and there are rules to follow to get the most from your respite. The cardinal rule of caregiving is "Take care of the caregiver." So no matter how you define it or when you take it – just make sure that you have regular respite breaks to recharge your battery and nurture your personal interests.

Here are some of my "Respite Rules:"

  • Respite has several forms: Daily, weekly and vacation
  • Respite involves things YOU are interested in and enjoy
  • Respite is to be undisturbed by your caregiving role
  • Respite gives you time to explore and discover yourself, your interests and your talents
  • Respite is only for the person taking it and does not change anything else

Respite can take many forms and it does not always involve taking a trip far away (though that is what many caregivers will dream of). We as caregivers need to take respite on a daily basis, as well as for a few days or longer. Respite is something that will take your mind off your role of caregiving and allow you time to do something that you enjoy for yourself.

Daily respite periods are vital and an important part of the mental health of the caregiver. Many times when we think of daily respite periods we often think of long hot baths, taking naps or hiding in a corner with a book. These things are valid parts of respite but daily respite can be more than that. As caregivers we have often put off the life we had and devote much of our time to the care of our loved ones. The things we did before are either impossible for us to do or no longer have the value they once did have. Nevertheless, all of us though have interests and desires that we have always had but never really had the time to explore.

One of the most valuable respites we can do is one that lets us explore new interests and talents. It may be something as simple as stringing beads, taking classes to improve our knowledge or even building for a new career after caregiving. Our view points and the way we look at life will change (sometimes drastically) from our life before caring for a loved one to what we will become after our role as caregivers is over. I have found that the caregiver who has not given any time to exploring themselves during their role of caregiving may be left with an over whelming hole in their lives after their loved one is gone.

I learned while caring for my mother-in-law Milly that I could write, which is something that I only dreamed of before caring for her. I relearned how to crochet and made many afghans while caring for her. I also bought some simple wood beads that were unfinished, bought some craft paint and some fine brushes and locked myself up for a few minutes or longer in a quiet room and hand painted beads and did many with some fine designs on them. Later when I had a supply of them, I let some of the younger children make themselves necklaces from my beads, which delighted them and me. Some projects I tried I found I could not do with Milly around but there were many new and interesting things I discovered I could do. What was more important is that this type of respite allowed me to grow as a person. Did you know that you can even take college course over   the Internet? Anything that allows you to grow and concentrate on something other than your loved one and caregiving is a valid respite break.

Daily respite however is not enough and each caregiver needs to do some sort of respite regularly that takes them totally out of the environment of caring for their loved one. Ideally a caregiver should go out for several hours each week. This respite should also take you around other people who you can socialize with. The lack of a social life brings a lot of stress for a caregiver. Many caregivers develop an isolated and protected life. Getting out to socialize and do things with others becomes very difficult, especially after years of caring for someone because few people really understand what you are going through and talking about it can make them uncomfortable.

Remember that respite is supposed to take you away from caregiving and give you time for YOU only. While out for a respite period you need to avoid talking about your role as caregiver and your loved one. A caregiver does need to discuss their loved one, what they are going through and tips on how to over come difficult situations/behaviors, but find a special support group and do not count that time as "respite."

Taking a break that will take you away from the caregiving situation for a few days or more is very important. Even if a caregiver does the daily AND the weekly respite breaks there are going to be times of high stress where the caregiver needs to back off and get away for a while. Taking time off for more than a few hours often feels impossible but every effort should be made to take a longer break. You can check in your area and find that many care facilities provide respite care. You can place your loved one with them for a week at a time, or sometimes longer. You can also hire someone either privately or through an agency to stay with your loved one for a period of time. You may have another family member come in to care for the loved one while you go away.

Having a family member come while you are away gives others a chance to contribute to the care. It also helps them to keep in perspective the condition and the state of their loved one. Anytime you can include other family members not normally involved with the daily care, the better it is for everyone involved. It often helps the caregiver feel more at ease with leaving the loved one for a while.

Once the respite vacation has been set up there are some simple things that you can do to make your vacation as enjoyable as possible:

  • Arrange to have another family member be listed as the emergency contact if you leave your loved one in a temporary facility. Leave your number with that emergency contact person in the event of a real emergency;
  • Prepare written instruction on your loved one’s regular routine;
  • Write down your loved one’s likes and dislikes and how to handle/deal with problems situations/behaviors;
  • Do not call to check on how your loved one is doing. Let the one you left in charge check up on your loved one; and
  • Resist the urge to call but if you really must call, call the one you left as the contact person. Caregivers on respite tend to be like new parents their first time away from the kids.

Once you get back from your respite, don't feel disappointed and let down. Your expectations of what respite should do for you is generally off mark. Respite will not make your loved one nicer or better, it will not make the house any cleaner (the house may even be dirtier than when you left), it will not make your caregiving role easier and it will not make the sun shine any brighter. Respite will give you time to relax, pursue things of interest to you and give you the chance to rediscover/explore yourself and who you are becoming. It will help you to grow and to maintain your sense of being. Many of these effects will have long reaching effects especially for the time period after your role of caregiving is over.

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