How to “Unplug” from Caregiving

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You're a long-term caregiver for your parents and you are getting more than a little burned out. A friend tells you that her family is unable to use a five day beach home reservation that they've already paid for. They've offered you the package, since they don't want it wasted, but your first instinct is to say no.

While you could ask for time off at your office job, who would care for your parents? Even if you could arrange care, how would you be able to go without being mired in guilt and mentally stuck back home?

Thanks to the caregiver "fix it" mentality, you probably won't be able to totally avoid some concern about what is happening at home. But it may be possible that you can, with planning, take advantage of a break and come home refreshed.

While each caregiving situation is unique and the idea that you will be worry free during your trip or vacation is a bit optimistic, there are steps you can take to prepare for a good time.

Practical suggestions that you can tailor to your family's needs:

  1. Recognize that you deserve a break. No matter how much you love your care receiver(s), the daily routine can be exhausting and mind numbing. Sometimes you just need a break from caregiving. As with any job, paid or unpaid, a rest from the daily grind rejuvenates the body, mind and spirit. Realize that your care receiver(s) will, whether or not they realize it ahead of time, reap the benefits of a happier, more rested you.
  2. Plan, plan, plan. The more you feel you've done all you can do to ensure a smooth transition, the more relaxed you'll be while you are away. Call an in-home agency, preferably one recommended by friends, and set up an interview with them. If you are satisfied, make arrangements for a caregiver to go to your parent's home for whatever time you feel is needed. If a nursing home or assisted living is part of the picture, obviously you will have to coordinate with them.
  3. Make sure they have their medications. One of the toughest parts of planning can be having prescriptions filled because insurance generally makes people wait pretty close to the cutoff time before obtaining refills. However, do everything you can to make sure that the medications needed are up to date and then arrange to have someone to mail or pick up whatever you couldn't have filled.
  4. Stock up on staples. If you've been grocery shopping for your parents, you know what they need. Paper towels, toilet paper and facial tissues don't spoil. Make sure to leave plenty around and that they know where to find such items. Special soap? Get two. Same with shampoo and other personal items. They'll feel more secure even if your trip is short.
  5. Prepare meals ahead of time. Stock up on easy to cook food, or make meals ahead of time and freeze them for your parents. Much depends on how independent they are, but if you make everything easy, you'll feel better about leaving them for awhile. Arrange for Meals-on-Wheels for daily meal delivery if they would like that. Have the hired caregiver keep track of needed groceries and go to the store or have them take your parents if that has been your pattern.
  6. Discuss laundry. If you do their laundry or if there are stairs to a basement laundry room that may not be safe, put laundry on the list for the hired caregiver to do. The same goes for light housekeeping and dishes. Arrange some method, paid help or other family members, to do what you would usually do.
  7. Get them an alarm. I can't emphasize enough how helpful a personal alarm worn by your parent can be. Even if you have two parents at home, signing them up for personal alarms is a good idea. They are worn on the wrist or as a pendant. If you already have a system and you are the first responder, make sure to change that designation to someone who will be available to respond while you are away. If your parents know a neighbor fairly well, ask the neighbor if he or she can be the contact person for a short time. The first responder just needs to be able to investigate a situation. They can then tell the dispatcher for the service if 9-1-1 is needed, so the first responder doesn't have to be strong or even able bodied.
  8. Don't forget the outside. Arrange lawn care or snow clearing ahead of time if that service isn't already in place.
  9. Have a way to get in touch. These days, Skype can be a good connection for computer savvy elders and traveling adult children to stay in communication. Remember, though, you are doing this to unplug. I'd suggest that, if possible, you ask the paid caregivers and the neighbor or another nearby person to only contact you in a true emergency. Alternately, if you feel you simply must talk daily—perhaps if your elder is isolated—then call or set up Skype for a specified period of time. This is something you have to work out for yourself. Additionally, you can pre-address note cards to send so your parents get mail from you. This is something I did on a rare getaway. I even mailed one card from home so that my parents had a card the day after I left. The notes made them feel like I was in contact, yet it was a small detail for me and didn't distract from my good time.
  10. Make a list and check it as often as you need to. Does it cover everything you can think of that your loved ones may need? If so, follow the advice of counselors and support groups and mentally detach from the home situation while you are away.

Detaching may be the hardest step, but unless you do so, you aren't really taking a vacation. Admitting that you need a break is key to helping you recognize, prevent and avoid caregiver burnout. You can't control what will happen tomorrow. You can't control how your parents will react to your absence. But you can control (to some degree) your worry, because that stems from your attitude.

Trust that you've done all you can and then enjoy your time away.

When you return refreshed, you'll likely wonder why you haven't done this more often. Even with a bit of whining from your care receiver(s) before and after your journey – no one can do things like you do – you'll be able to tackle the job of caregiving with less resentment and fresh energy.

Bring back little gifts and lots of pictures to share. Like negativity, enthusiasm can be contagious. You might even find that you missed everyone beyond your expectations and that you can think of some positive topics to discuss with your parents. In fact, they may even feel inwardly proud that they got along okay without their dictatorial offspring running the show.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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69 Comments

Great article. After 10+ yrs of caregiving for my mother (who lives with me... my 2 brothers don't help... in any way), I finally took a 4 day 'real' vacation. It's really difficult for me because my mother lives 'through' me... It's very difficult because she constantly says things like "I wish I could go. If I was only younger I... I used to... " Now this may seem simple to address for some people, but she doesn't 'change' no matter what... It has slowly sucked the energy from me and increased the guilt factor. I'm trying to live 'my' life with reality... We are two different people. I have 'my' life... I can't live for the two of us. It's very, very difficult. In the interim, time is marching on and I'm only getting older. I hope caregiver's like myself can force themselves to get away for our own health. I know this, because it almost made me sick.
I find it difficult to relate to this article. If you are the sole and primary caregiver for an elderly parent in poor health and with mobility issues, most of the suggestions clearly would not work. Had I taken a vacation the last 3 to 4 yrs of my father's life, I would have had to spend enough money for a full time 24/7 home health aide to be with him.

I am not able to throw a switch from being the primary caregiver and go off to enjoy "fun in sun" and completely relax. I can not turn off my emotions and not worry about the elder. That would up my stress level higher than caring for him.

I unplugged from caregiving after the elderly parent passed away. There is plenty of time to relax and sleep then. However , I was not eager to plan a vacation until I accepted the loss and rested up from the caregiving--that took about 9 months for me. There is a time while grieving a loss when you feel the shift back to your pre-caregiving self. When you and your happiness is all you have to attend to or on your mind. I knew when the shift came, and I think most people notice it.

Very good article. One mental trick that I use to "give myself permission" to leave Mom alone at the ALF on holidays is to remind myself that when her mother was in her 90's, she did not spend holidays with her, but instead chose to spend it with me and my young family. So I also have the right to enjoy my grandchildren while they are young, just as she did.