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Caregiver Rest – An Impossible Dream?

Rest is often an elusive concept for caregivers.  The opportunity to rest in the midst of caregiving is called “respite,” and is generally thought of as a program or service which relieves a caregiver of direct responsibility for the care recipient for a designated period of time.

How important should respite be for caregivers?  Everyone benefits from episodes of downtime. Researchers studying productivity in the workplace have determined that our brains need to periodically switch gears in order to function optimally. I would argue that caregivers, especially those who provide assistance 24/7, need to maintain as much or more mental acuity than workers earning a paycheck.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, an author, consultant, speaker, and visiting scholar at Stanford University was interviewed by Ferris Jabr, a writer for Scientific American, in 2016 ( shortly before the publication of his book, Rest:  Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.  When questioned about his research, he stated, “I think about rest very differently now than when I started working on this project.  I thought about rest as much more passive and as something you do when you’re finished with everything else you have going on. I now firmly believe that is wrong. Rest is not this optional leftover activity. Work and rest are actually partners. They are like different parts of a wave. You can’t have the high without the low. The better you are at resting, the better you will be at working.”

Although Mr. Pang’s viewpoint was expressed in relation to professional business, it is also applicable to caregiving.  Also, the “rest” that he is referring to is not necessarily a nap or sitting with a cup of coffee and your feet up, although these are options.  Rest is any activity which provides an opportunity for our thoughts to wander away from responsibility.  Research has shown that allowing our brains to enter this “default mode” is essential for learning, creativity, motivation, memory, and a sense of self, among other things.

Several options exist for scheduled periods of respite for caregivers.

Home care services are available on an hourly basis for a paid caregiver to come into the home and provide companionship or hands-on care for the individual in need of supervision/assistance.  These caregivers can also complete light housekeeping tasks and assist with meal preparation. If financial considerations prevent the hiring of a paid caregiver, consider family members, friends, and even church or temple acquaintances who may be willing to help by staying with the care recipient so the caregiver can have some “free time.” Providing volunteers with some supervised time with the care recipient prior to leaving them alone together will allow volunteers to become familiar with routines, habits, personalities, and expectations, thereby leading to a smoother respite visit.

Adult day services are available to provide care and activities for individuals outside of the home.  Current pandemic guidelines are making this type of service difficult or undesirable to obtain, however during “normal” times it is a less expensive alternative to home care.  If getting the care recipient ready to go out somewhere creates a significantly greater workload for the caregiver, this may not be a good option.

Likewise, during non-pandemic times, many care communities offer respite stays for individuals who are not long-term residents.  Minimum and maximum length of stays may apply for each individual facility.  This option may be the easiest to manage when a longer period of respite is needed due to situations such as medical treatment or travel by the primary caregiver.  It also allows for a “trial run” to see how an individual responds to a care community setting.

How should a caregiver utilize respite time to gain the maximum benefit?  First, allowing oneself to let go of caregiving responsibility for a while is essential, and may take some practice.  Regularly scheduled respite care allows a primary caregiver to anticipate a break, which can provide motivation to keep going during rough periods.  Sometimes it may be necessary to utilize respite time to accomplish other important tasks, such as personal medical appointments.  However, allowing oneself the freedom to “indulge” in a preferred activity can reap intangible rewards by promoting the activation of different neural circuits in the brain. These circuits are essential for helping recharge both physical and mental energy. Choosing an activity which will easily fit into the allotted respite timeframe is imperative in order to prevent additional stress.

For full time caregivers who are hard pressed to find additional time to do anything, take heart that even a few moments of daydreaming, a deep breath, or the act of blinking can help recharge the brain.  Use the time during those mundane chores which don’t require much concentration, such as folding laundry, to allow your mind to travel wherever it wants to.  Caring for yourself through the use of respite time and/or other revitalization techniques will help provide the muscle for your ongoing support of your loved one.

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN

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