What is Respite Care? An In-Depth Explanation


You care deeply for your loved one, which is why you dedicate time and energy to caring for them. Knowing you can be there when they need you comes with rewards, but it can also come with some challenges and drawbacks. Respite care, whether it’s provided in the home or in a community, can help you find balance while caregiving.

The impact of caregiving

The daily wear of providing hands-on care adds up. Caregiver stress can have detrimental physical and emotional effects that last long after one’s role ends. According to a joint report published by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, those who provide more than 20 hours of care per week are more likely to report higher physical strain associated with caregiving. Physical symptoms can include the following:

  • Loss of sleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased pain
  • Worsened headaches

Caregiving also has a significant emotional impact, which can jeopardize not only your own mental health but also the quality of care your loved one receives. Emotional symptoms can include:

  • Physical and emotional isolation, since caregivers spend the majority of their time with their care recipients
  • Depression, exhaustion, anxiety, and a sense of feeling perpetually overwhelmed
  • Resentment and compassion fatigue
  • Caregiver guilt, self-punishment, or self-denial, where the caregiver feels they’ve done something wrong

Left unchecked, these difficult feelings can lead to caregiver burnout and serious health issues. To prevent this from occurring, respite should be part of your care plan. When you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t provide quality care for others.

What is respite care?

Respite care services provide family caregivers a temporary reprieve from elder care responsibilities. Respite care can take place in the home or in a senior living community, and it can occur in the form of mental and emotional support. Building regular respite into a care plan is a healthy choice for caregivers and their care recipients. It can also make it easier to quickly arrange back-up care in emergency situations.

Your well-being may not seem related to that of your loved one, but it’s actually very closely intertwined. Did you ever notice that many people with important, high-stress careers still manage to make time for themselves? They may work long hours, but they know that if they don’t take time to step away and recharge, poor job performance and burnout could occur. It’s no different for family caregivers.

Types of respite care services

For some family caregivers, the hard part may not be admitting the need for rest. Instead, they may not know how to get respite care that will enable them to take a break.

There are many professionals, volunteers, and organizations that can help you locate the best respite resources for your unique situation. Begin your search by exploring the options below.

In-home respite care

If you’re looking for a versatile form of respite, home respite care is an excellent option to consider. Home care companies provide a broad range of non-medical services to help you get a much-needed break from caregiving. In addition to caring for your loved one, in-home respite care providers can help with transportation to doctor’s appointments, shopping and errands, laundry, light housekeeping, and meal preparation. Some companies also offer skilled medical services known as home health care.

In-home respite care services are flexible and highly customizable. This feature allows family caregivers to set aside time for their own needs, such as attending appointments, socializing with friends, exercising, or even catching up on sleep.

Adult day care

Adult day care centers offer respite care services, typically during normal business hours, by looking after seniors outside of their homes while their caregivers work, run errands, or simply take a break. Adult day care centers provide a safe, secure, and social environment for older adults to visit for a few hours or a full day.

There are different types of adult day care that fit seniors’ specific needs. For example, some centers offer adult day health care, which includes health monitoring services and medication administration during the day. Others focus solely on providing social opportunities and recreational activities.

Respite in community care settings

For those who need a longer break from caregiving, short-term stays at senior living communities may be an option. Some assisted living communities, independent living communities, and nursing homes offer temporary overnight stays, sometimes called respite care services. This is an excellent fit for family caregivers who are looking to take a vacation.

During their stay, seniors have access to the same services as full-time residents. These may include meals, social activities, transportation services, in-room emergency call systems, and on-site amenities.

Temporary respite care stays are also an excellent way for seniors to get a preview of what it’s like to live in a community care setting. Some older adults may be more open to the idea of spending time in long-term care communities if it’s not a permanent arrangement.

Geriatric care managers

If you feel overwhelmed by the complex decisions that must be made about your loved one’s care, a geriatric care manager (GCM) may be a valuable addition to your care team. Also known as Aging Life Care Professionals, GCMs are often licensed social workers or nurses.

The Aging Life Care Association (ALCA), a nonprofit organization that oversees these elder care experts, requires its members to be licensed in their fields, be trained in geriatrics, and adhere to its guidelines for professional conduct. GCMs can provide mental and emotional respite to caregivers by helping them create a care plan, seek out and evaluate care options, locate financial assistance, and much more.

Respite care for hospice patients

Seniors who are terminally ill and qualify for hospice care covered by Medicare are entitled to a certain amount of inpatient respite care on an occasional basis. This allows family caregivers to enjoy up to five days of respite at a time while their loved ones are cared for in a Medicare-approved facility like a hospital, hospice facility, or nursing home. Medicare beneficiaries who are eligible for hospice may need to pay 5% of the Medicare-approved amount for inpatient respite care services.

Hospital patient advocates

If your loved one is hospitalized and you’re unsure where to turn with your questions about inpatient and outpatient care, contact the hospital’s patient advocate. Advocates are there to provide support and resources for patients and their families in these specific situations. Their services are generally provided free of charge, so don’t hesitate to seek them out.

Senior centers

Senior centers offer elders a safe environment where they can take part in a range of activities led by trained personnel. Senior centers may also provide additional services, like the following:

  • Respite care
  • Virtual visits via telephone or computer
  • In-home visitors
  • Nursing home visitors
  • Home health aides
  • Support groups
  • Adult day care
  • Information about and referrals to other services available in the community

Respite care volunteers

Many programs around the country rely on volunteers to provide caregiving services to families when respite care is only needed for a few hours. A senior may need to meet certain financial requirements to be eligible for these services.

For example, sitter and companion services are sometimes provided by civic organizations such as AmeriCorps Seniors, faith communities, and other local groups. A regular sitter or companion can provide friendly in-home respite care for a few hours once or twice a week and expand the senior’s social circle.

Make sure that the sitter or companion you choose has passed a background check and is trained in what to do if an emergency occurs in your absence. Local Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) can typically arrange services or provide referrals to other respite care programs in your area.

Friends and family

Consider calling on your friends and family members for the help you need. They may not know exactly how they can contribute, so don’t be afraid to start the conversation.

If they offer to help, be sure to clearly communicate what kinds of support would be the most useful to you. If your neighbor wants to bring you dinner, but you already have that handled, ask them to complete another task instead. Picking up your loved one’s prescriptions or providing emotional respite by coming over for a cup of coffee may be just as important to you.

Sometimes phone applications and computer programs can simplify coordinating respite care efforts between friends and family. For example, Lotsa Helping Hands is an easy-to-use, private group calendar specifically designed for organizing help. Caregivers can invite their family, friends, and neighbors to join their care team and post requests for specific tasks, such as meals and transportation, on the calendar. Members of your community can then volunteer to complete these requests and directly lighten your workload.

Virtual respite

An online forum or support group may provide the mental, emotional, and social respite that gets you through the day. Online communities allow people with shared interests to connect with one another to share tips, advice, and challenges. Best of all, an online caregiver forum is available when you are — allowing you to interact with other caregivers 24/7 from the comfort of home.

Browse Our Free Senior Care Guides

Government resources for respite care

When searching for in-home respite or other options, consider contacting your city, county, and state social service agencies for help. Even if you think you may not qualify for specific services, these agencies might be able to make referrals to other programs and organizations that can be of assistance.

Offices that may offer helpful respite care services and additional information include the following:

How to choose a respite provider

Some states require licensing, certification, or both for certain types of in-home respite care providers. If your state doesn’t, it’s even more important to do your own thorough background and qualifications check, especially if you intend to seek respite from independent caregivers who aren’t associated with a larger company or organization. Many respite care providers conduct background and reference checks for their employees and volunteers, but it’s important to ask about their vetting process.

Use this checklist when considering a home respite care provider:

  • Screen and interview providers by telephone.
  • Meet in person before starting services.
  • Ask for references.
  • Check references and criminal background.
  • Evaluate costs, payment methods, and possible payroll taxes.
  • Inquire about provider policies and protocols.
  • Obtain a contract that provides specific details about the arrangement.

Respite reminder

There are no strict guidelines for deciding when respite is needed or for choosing the best option. Your version of respite may be a daily phone call with a friend while your loved one naps, or it could be in-home respite care that allows you to have a weekend to yourself. The possibilities are as unique as you and your situation.

Any type of respite can be considered successful if your loved one continues to receive quality care and supervision in your absence, allowing you to get a well-deserved break. Our Care Advisors are here to assist you in your search for respite care, whether it’s provided in your loved one’s home or in a senior living facility.

Hospice Care Coverage (https://www.medicare.gov/coverage/hospice-care)

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal, or financial advice or to create a professional relationship between AgingCare and the reader. Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney, or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter, and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; AgingCare does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

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