Imagine being pushed into a crowd of marathon runners with no running shoes or gear, no pre-training to fall back on, no one cheering you on from the sidelines with power bars and bottles of cold water. Also, you don’t know when you’ll cross the finish line. All you know is that you’ll be exhausted when you get there.
Caregiving can feel like a marathon. It’s an experience that most are thrust into without warning, and with virtually no training. You often feel unprepared for what's next. Good cheerleaders are hard to find. But you get into a stride, you adapt, and you keep running until you need a rest. And that's when necessary respite care can be a lifesaver.
Finding Moments of Rest
Providing care for a loved one is a journey. You grow and learn as you go, but one of the most important things a caregiver can learn early on is to avoid dangerous burnout with respite. Know that when providing care, you should do daily self-care rituals like journaling, drinking a cup of tea, or taking a five-minute walk outside to refresh your body, soul and mind. But you also need time to completely remove yourself from the race and rest for an extended period — or as Denise Brown, family caregiver and founder of Caregiving.com puts it, “a few moments.”
“My parents were both critically ill throughout 2015, with the summer months proving to be the most intense,” Brown recalls. But there were a host of reasons that made taking time off feel impossible for the small business owner, so she had to be creative. “I couldn't leave town, but I could take a break by going to my community pool to simply float,” she says.
Brown looks back now at the summer of 2015 as “the summer of the pool.” She kept her swimming bag in her car so she could head to the pool whenever she had a few minutes. “And that’s all I needed: a few moments to float back and forth, and back and forth,” says Brown. “Floating in the water while kids played reminded me that life continues and I will too.”
Finding Strength for the Long Haul
Cathy Jones Parks and her husband care around the clock “on high alert 24/7” for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s.
“Without the breaks, which allow us to turn off the ‘high alert’ mode for brief periods, we would be emotionally and physically exhausted to the point where we are not functioning well,” says Jones Parks. “In addition, we need the respite time to take care of our personal lives.”
Jones Parks currently relies on family members for respite now, but she is actively investigating community options. “Respite allows us to continue to ‘be us’ and to build our strength so that we can effectively care for my mom for the intensive 24/7 periods,” she says.
Readying Yourself for Respite
Lillian Lake was already a seasoned caregiver when she relocated to a different state to care for an older cousin with whom she had a lifelong friendship. And even though she only cared for Betty for four months (a commitment that was initially supposed to be two weeks), she made respite a priority.
“I had three opportunities for respite care during that time,” says Lake. “These [day trips] were only 24 hours apiece, but without them, I would have had a much more difficult time remaining in a state of gratitude and calmness, and have the energy required to take care of someone 24 hours a day with no outside help other than hospice twice a week and a CNA who came twice a week.”
Lake says these day visits kept her grounded. “I was able to feel that while I was more than willing to care for Betty, I was staying true to myself and my own needs while remaining in unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar people.”
Finding and scheduling respite wasn’t without its challenges, even for the experienced Lake. “I didn't have an issue with understanding my need for respite, but it was still hard to stand my ground and demand commitment from the ones who would be taking my place,” she explains. “I had to have what seemed like long, exhausting conversations about Betty's condition, write out exactly how meds were to be given and under what circumstances, and leave a trail of breadcrumbs in case I was needed — as well as make the arrangements for my time away.”
For the caregiver who doesn't feel ready for respite, Lake understands the hesitation. "Respite is tricky,” she says. “While you're absent, you truly have to put your mind and heart in a state of suspension and yet, be ready.”
But Lake also believes that’s the beauty of respite — and of caregiving too. “After all, isn't that what caregiving is? Holding space for love in the relationship, even when you'd like to be doing something else.”
Balancing Life Better with a Professional Caregiver
As each caregiver’s journey is unique, so will her experience be with respite. What each caregiver needs to refuel during her marathon is different, but one truth remains genuinely universal: you must take time away from caregiving to focus on your life as a wife, a mother, an employee, a friend. You can't be a devoted wife, mother, employee, friend and a 24/7 caregiver without help.
Something has to give: and if you can lean on an experienced professional caregiver for respite, you can better fulfill your responsibilities to your loved one who is depending on you. And as you lighten your caregiving load, whether for a few moments or 24-hour increments, you can breathe more deeply and step back into your role refreshed and ready, not resentful, and not burnt out.
Find out how partnering with a professional caregiver makes a lifesaving difference, as it did for the five women in this story about how respite eased their caregiving stress.