Caring Currents

Do Good Daughters Park Their Parents With Dementia in Respite Care Overnight?

Last updated: Aug 21, 2008


Respite vacations for Alzheimer's caregivers made the front page of the New York Times on Tuesday. Every caregiver should know the key points:

  1. Respite can save your health and your marriage.
  2. Overnight options include in-home care and short-stay arrangements in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and "camps," such as one run by the Family Caregiver Alliance.
  3. Using vacation respite isn't bad for the loved one with dementia.
  4. Taking a vacation isn't a sign that you're a lousy caregiver.

That last point probably belongs first, and in all caps. There's such a pervasive misconception, deep in the psyche, that it isn't "right" to leave a loved one who needs care while you go off on holiday. "Most caregivers do not take respite vacations because they see them as an admission of failure or they worry something will happen while they are away," says the Times piece.

It's the Good-Daughters-Should-Suffer Syndrome. Substitute "sons" if you'd like. Or to put it in perspective, try substituting the word "mothers." Many young parents show a similar kind of separation anxiety regarding their children. They resist using outside caregivers and overnight babysitters because they're imprisoned by the exhausting "oughts" of super-mommy-martyrdom. Good moms suck it up. Good moms don't ask for help. Good moms put their children first and last. Good moms' own lives don't matter. Well, those kind of good moms keel over eventually and have very cross husbands.

You may ask:

What about all the wrenching distress and confusion shown at parting? It's natural (and sometimes manipulative). But separation stress is a blip, and it's outweighed by the many benefits you'll reap afterwards. Even if a loved one is chagrined all weekend long, relatively speaking, it's still a blip. Besides, babysitters and geriatric aides alike know that the upset often fades as soon as your car leaves the driveway.

What about longer effects on those left behind? In fact, just as kids tend to thrive (and sometimes even have more fun and behave better) in the temporary care of qualified good hands -- so, too, can people with dementia. Any stress or disorientation often improves when routine is resumed. There may be declines, but then again, decline is an inexorable part of their life now.

What about bad things happening in your absence? Adults with dementia and kids alike can trip and fall, throw tantrums, get sick -- on anybody's watch. You've left effective people in charge. They can deal with it. Unless it's a true crisis, you'll be back (refreshed) soon enough. And it's not like your presence would have super-cosmically prevented all Bad Things.

What about that nagging guilt you feel when you take off to have fun? Hard to sugarcoat this: Get over it. Selfishness can be a positive trait when it's applied to self-preservation. If you care for a parent all but one weekend a month, or all but four weeks a year, well -- you do the math. A few respite vacations (note I used the plural) are a drop in the bucket of the total time you're on the job. And the rewards are incalculable. The vast majority of the time, your particular brand of love and care may be like no other -- but, yes, you are temporarily replaceable.

So what kind of daughter (or son) leaves a parent for a week or two? A smart and sane and healthy one.

Image by Flickr user Cubbie_n_Vegas, used under the Creative Commons attribution license.