Jen has been caring for her parents for almost two years and she is quickly approaching caregiver burn out. A close friend booked and prepaid a five-day beach vacation for her family months ago, but it turns out they can’t go. They’ve offered Jen the package, since they don’t want it to go to waste, but her first instinct is to turn it down.

She reckons she could ask for time off work, but who would care for her parents? Even if she managed to arrange respite care for five days, how could she possibly go without being mired in guilt and worrying about what’s happening back at home?

While a free vacation offer isn’t a regular occurrence for the average family caregiver, it’s likely that most can closely relate to the rest of this scenario. How many times have you passed over a social invitation, weekend trip or vacation because of the intimidating amount of planning it would take and the inevitable stress you’d feel while away? What if an emergency happens while you’re gone?

The truth is that all caregivers struggle with these concerns and many allow them to get in the way of taking the respite breaks they so badly need and deserve. Thanks to the caregiver “fix-it” mentality, it’s unrealistic to think that you’ll totally avoid some concern about what is happening at home. But, with careful planning, it is possible to take advantage of a break and come home refreshed.

The next time an opportunity for respite care presents itself, seize it! Then use the following practical tips to ensure your loved one will be well cared for, so you can fully enjoy your down time without feeling overwhelmed by worry or guilt.

  1. Recognize that you deserve a break. No matter how much you love your care receiver(s), your caregiving routine can become exhausting and mind numbing. Sometimes you just need a break. 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 reap the benefits of a happier, more rested you. It’s impossible to provide quality care when you’re stressed, sleep deprived and feeling resentful.
  2. Plan, plan, plan. The more prepared you feel for your time off, the more relaxed you’ll be while you are away. Research in-home care companies or senior living communities that offer respite stays in your area. Ask for recommendations from friends and family and set up interviews/tours with prospective providers. If you are satisfied with one of these providers, finalize arrangements for your respite period. A trial run shortly before your break is recommended for in-home care so you can see how your care recipient(s) get along with the professional caregivers.
  3. Make sure they have their medications. Depending on the timing and duration of your getaway, you may have to jump through some hoops to ensure your loved one has all their medications. Prescriptions can be bothersome because insurance companies generally allow for little overlap between refills. However, do everything you can to make sure that your loved one has all necessary meds while you’re gone. You can try to request some extra doses from the prescribing doctor or arrange to have someone pick up prescriptions that need to be filled in your absence.
  4. Stock up on staples. If you’ve been running errands for your loved one(s), you know what they need and enjoy having handy. You can never have too many pantry items, paper products and toiletries on hand. Even if your trip is short, you’ll both feel more secure knowing there are plenty of supplies on hand. Better yet, some extras will keep you from having to make a trip to the store the second you get home and resume your responsibilities.
  5. Prepare meals ahead of time. Food can be a little trickier depending on your loved one’s abilities in the kitchen and how long you’ll be gone. You can stock up on easy-to-cook food, make meals ahead of time and freeze them, or arrange for Meals-on-Wheels to provide daily deliveries. In-home caregivers can cook meals from scratch, heat up pre-made dishes, keep track of needed groceries, and either go to the store for your loved one or shop on an outing together.
  6. Assign housekeeping tasks. If you handle most household tasks for your loved one, like laundry, dishwashing, watering plants and the lawn, and general cleaning, you’ll need to appoint someone else to take over these responsibilities. A housekeeper can see to these things and in some cases a hired caregiver can handle some basic household chores.
  7. Consider purchasing a personal alert device. I can’t emphasize enough how helpful a wearable personal alarm can be. They are worn on the wrist or as a pendant around the neck. If you already have a system in place and you are listed as the emergency contact, make sure to change that designation to someone who will be available to respond while you are away.
  8. Have a way to get in touch. Staying in touch with those back home can be reassuring but remember that you are taking this respite time to get away. You know your loved one and yourself best. Will Mom tell you she misses you but assure you that all is well? Or will she catastrophize, guilt you for taking time for yourself and exaggerate the incompetence of her new caregiver? The right level of connectedness is up to you to decide. Wanting to go no-contact for a few days is nothing to be ashamed of.
    If you do want to stay in touch, try to limit calls to a reasonable amount like once a day. I’d suggest that you ask the paid caregivers to only contact you in a true emergency and ask another family member or trusted friend to check in on things and spearhead any troubleshooting while you’re gone.
    Additionally, you can pre-address note cards to send so your loved one gets mail from you. This is something I did once on a rare getaway. I even mailed one from home so that my parents received 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 that didn’t distract from my good time.
  9. Make a comprehensive list and check it as often as you need to. You know your daily caregiving routine by heart, but it can be challenging to spell it out for someone else to take over. To avoid missing anything, document your tasks for a week or so. This will make it easier to ensure everything has been addressed and help you prepare your respite care provider for any contingencies. If you can check off preparations for every aspect of your list, then you know you’ve done a solid job preparing for your break. Bring it with you on your trip as a source of reassurance just in case you get that nagging feeling like you’ve forgotten something.

Detaching may be the hardest step, but if you don’t do it, then you aren’t really taking a vacation. Admitting that you need a break and then making it happen is crucial for preventing and recovering from caregiver burnout. There are countless things that are out of your control in this scenario, but you can respect the boundaries you set and keep your attitude positive. Trust that you’ve done all you can to provide for your loved one(s) and then enjoy your time away.

When you return refreshed, you’ll likely wonder why you haven’t done this sooner. Even with a bit of whining from your care receiver(s) before and after your break, you’ll be able to return to the job with less resentment and renewed energy.