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Respite care is key to many caregiver's mental health

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Caregivers hear it all the time: "Take care of yourself or you can't take care of others." People mean well when they say that. Indeed, they are correct. The problem is just how does a caregiver find time for self-care? It seems impossible when we are already running in circles just keeping up with demands on our time. However, there are resources available. A caregiver must be willing to look for these resources or accept practical help for there are resources for them.

Granted, finding respite care isn't always easy, but there are options. If you are fortunate enough to live in a state that is part of the State Respite Coalition, which is under the umbrella of the Chapel Hill Training-Outreach Project, Inc., you are on your way to getting help. Many states are represented on this site, so please check there.

One major place to look is your state Web site. Look under their version of "aging services." From there you will be able to find links to local services, plus you will find your state's version of the National Family Caregiver Support Program.

Also, you may want to check with your county human services agency. In my community, government funds have gone to waste because people didn't realize that our human services agency had funding for respite care, which is not dependent on financial need. People don't ask for help so the funds evaporate. When I wrote about this community service for a newspaper column, the agency was flooded by calls from caregivers - some in tears - saying, "I didn't know this was available."

Another resource is the Living At Home/ Block Nurse program. You can go to the Elderberry Institute site for information. Many small communities have these programs and the help they provide to caregivers is a Godsend.

Also, RSVP, a senior volunteer program, has Senior Companions in many areas. Senior Companions are seniors in good health who offer wonderful company for elders at home while the caregiver does errands or has some free time.

Faith communities often have volunteer groups. People don't need to be highly trained to just sit and visit with elders, keeping them company or making sure don't wander off. If your faith community doesn't have a group, see if you can interest leaders in starting one. The need is great.

The options above are generally free or low cost. But the paid options shouldn't be overlooked or ignored. Just a few hours of help can mean all the difference in a caregiver's mental and physical health. In-home care is generally very flexible. Most agencies will ask for a block of time, but you can generally work out times and days that are best for you and your loved one. Many elders truly enjoy the variety they get when a caregiver comes to the home for a few hours. The fresh face and companionship of an agency worker can make a huge difference.

Adult day care is another flexible option. Many elders are hesitant when they go through the door of an adult day care, but once they settle in, most enjoy the activities and even make friends.

Often, our elders will fight the idea of someone else caring for them, even for a short time. Caregivers give in because they feel guilty. But sometimes we have to detach with love. Sometimes we have to take care of ourselves. If you know your loved ones are safe and cared for, you can tell them you love them, then leave for a bit. If Dad complains, then hug him and say it will be fine. Then go.

If he complains more when you get back, hug him and tell him time apart is good for both of you. Repeat as necessary. Most elders don't like change. Some elders just want to complain. And some are still trying to see if they can control us. Our caregiving compassion and sympathy are intact, but we need to be firm.

Again, it's about making sure there is responsible care for your loved one. Then do something for yourself. If you don't, you may end up leaving Mom or Dad without your care because you become ill - or die. There are statistics that put a 30 percent number on caregivers who die before those they care for. Some say the rate is higher.

If you cannot leave your loved even for an hour, then you need help. Please check out the options. You are as important as the person you care for.