Caring for yourself – the caregiver – is neither a new concept nor an easy conversation. It’s been a difficult subject to broach for as long as people have been caring for others. Given the intense, often round-the-clock demands placed on a family caregiver, the thought of stepping away from someone who needs so much can cause feelings of anxiety, apprehension, and guilt in the caregiver. But to be 100 percent present in addressing someone else’s needs, respite care for the caregiver is important. So, what exactly is it?

Because of the strain family caregivers are often under, burnout is an all-too-common result. This often manifests in mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. Fatigue and depression are also symptoms of caregiver burnout, as are mounting aches and pains, migraines, and more. To prevent this from happening, it is important to factor in time off, also known colloquially as “me time,” self-care, or respite care. Having another family member or friend take over or hiring a qualified in-home caregiver while you take a few hours away from things can restore body, mind, and spirit. It can help provide balance. But what happens on a longer-term basis if the primary caregiver suddenly gets sick or is called away for an extended period of time?

Preparing for Family Caregiver Contingencies

Preparing for family caregiver contingencies should be no different than taking steps to ensure children, cherished pets, or other dependent individuals receive the care they need when you can’t be there. Would you leave them without help? Of course not. Someone needs to be in place—your place.

Too often the attitude of, “I’ll always be there—it just won’t happen here” prevails, but taking this approach can leave a loved one in the lurch even if the caregiver wants to attend an out-of-town family function, needs a few days to recover from an illness, etc. It may be hard to think about delegating, but the alternative is your senior loved one left to manage on his/her own—an impossible situation—or more likely, in the eventuality of illness or injury, hurriedly placed in a long-term care facility if a bed is available, which isn’t always the case. In any event the abrupt change can cause stress and disorientation, especially if dementia is involved.

Finding and Introducing the Respite Caregiver

The following steps can help make the transition from family caregiver to respite caregiver easier:

  • If family members or friends are not available to assume emergency respite care, ask for recommendations (agency or other) from trusted members of your community including healthcare professionals, peers with aging family members, anyone in your orbit who may have the direct experience you are looking for.
  • Avoid excessive disruption later by introducing the emergency respite caregiver during a calmer time when routine is being followed. Granted if you have lined up an in-home care agency to provide emergency care, this may not be possible as available staff may change. But if another family member or friend with whom the senior is familiar is designated, bringing them in every so often to participate in care for a few hours can make an unexpected transition more relaxed for all. If the senior is in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, familiarity may be an issue no matter what steps are taken but under other circumstances, establishing a comfort level is a good practice.
  • If there are multiple options, asking the senior to participate in respite caregiver selection can create an easier transition if the time comes. The loss of independence is always difficult and giving back some of the power can mean a lot to someone who has lost it.


“What is Respite Care and Why is it Essential for Family Caregivers?” written by Beth Herman, Amada blog contributor.