Adult day centers can be a much-needed source of respite care for caregivers who need a break from looking after an aging loved one. Over the years, though, a series of myths and misunderstandings have cropped up regarding adult day care and what goes on after a senior arrives at one of these centers.

Debbie Stricoff, director of adult day services at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY) CHOICE Adult Day Center, and her colleague, Frantzie Agnant, a nurse at the center, shed light on the reality hiding behind the following myths.

Myth 1: It’s a glorified babysitting service for seniors.

Topping the list of myths is that adult day care is basically an elder-focused version of day care or babysitting. This is a damaging bit of misinformation that deters many families from taking advantage of such an important source of respite. The thing is that caregivers want their elderly loved ones to spend time somewhere they enjoy.

The VNSNY CHOICE center offers art, music, yoga, exercise, and gardening classes, a variety of different games, and even reminiscence discussions and current events seminars. “Everything we do here has therapeutic purpose for seniors—even if they don’t necessarily feel it,” Stricoff says. And that's exactly the point. These centers revolve around keeping seniors active and entertained, not just providing a supervised location for them to while away the day.

Myth 2: Everyone who goes to an adult day center is sick and feeble.

This is generally a concern for older people who don’t want to be “dragged down” by their frailer peers. According to Agnant, many people falsely believe that these centers consist of just a bunch of old people grouped together. But, Stricoff says that their participants cover a broad spectrum of ages and abilities. Larger centers are often capable of accommodating seniors across this spectrum, but there are smaller providers that specialize in caring for participants with specific physical and/or mental conditions. Offerings vary by community, so keep in mind that it may take a bit of research to find a provider that is a good fit for an aging loved one.

Myth 3: Every activity is scheduled, and seniors can’t deviate from the agenda.

The regimented schedule myth is closely related to the babysitting comparison above. This illusion stems from people’s experiences with day care and school days where young children are given a schedule they must adhere to. This model is seen as a necessity for the younger set but is rightly thought to be infantilizing to seniors. Agnant says that she encourages seniors to participate in any and all activities they are interested in, but that she never forces them to take part. Individuals at adult day programs are still capable of making their own decisions about how to spend their day at the center. In fact, many centers are open to new activity suggestions from their participants.

Myth 4: Centers are focused on activities and care—there’s no time for seniors to sit around and chat.

Agnant and Stricoff both emphasize the invaluable social aspect of attending an adult day center. Isolation and loneliness are prevalent among the elderly population and can be detrimental to both seniors’ mental and physical health. Centers can offer a much-needed social outlet for older individuals. Agnant says that many participants thrive due to a renewed sense of belonging. She has repeatedly seen seniors develop strong bonds as they mingle with one another and share everything from personal stories to knowledge of medical conditions. Even if a loved one is not particularly outgoing, simply being around new people and experiencing a different environment from time to time can be a refreshing change.

Myth 5: Caregivers aren’t allowed to participate.

Some caregivers may think that an adult day center won’t let them participate in activities with their elderly loved ones because the center may have something to hide. According to Stricoff, VNSNY CHOICE doesn’t specifically plan for caregivers to be involved in activities because they are focused on providing respite care. The purpose of adult day care is to provide seniors with a safe place to socialize and enjoy activities AND to give their family members a much-needed break. Participation is allowed and encouraged at VSNY CHOICE and it is likely that other centers have similar policies. Caregivers may just need to inquire about it beforehand. Agnant points out that caregiver participation may help a senior who is new to a center feel more comfortable as they settle in and get to know other people.

If you think this type of respite may be a good fit for you and your loved one, use the AgingCare.com Adult Day Care Directory to find a center near you.