What is Respite Care?


As a caregiver, you may be juggling a lot of balls—the care of your loved one, a job, children, and running your own home. Sometimes you just need someone to take care of your loved one for a couple of hours so that you can go out to dinner, go to the movies, or simply take a nap. Respite care is an umbrella term for services and options that give you time to rest and recharge.

“Respite is anything that provides time and space for the person caring for the person with dementia [or other illness] to do things other than provide care. It runs a broad gamut,” says Mary Mittelman, DrPH, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Dementias Family Support Program at NYU Langone Health.

Respite may take a variety of forms, including:

  • Adult day care. Adult day care centers offer daytime care, but some also offer limited overnight stays if a caregiver needs to work or go out of town overnight.
  • Short term nursing home placement
  • Programs accessed through a medical center or hospital. For example, NYU Langone Health and Northwestern University offer buddy programs that pair nursing or medical students with an older person with dementia to meet a few times a month and spend time together.
  • Church programs
  • In-home care from a friend or neighbor, or from a paid companion, health aide, or nurse with skilled services (for example, a person qualified to give medication).

How to find respite care

One of the hurdles, says Mittelman, is that caregivers either don’t know they need respite care or they don’t know such options exist. “No one comes to us and says, ‘I need respite care,” she says, even though they may talk about how hard it is to be with a person all the time. Doctors, too, may not know about local options.

To find programs near you, there are a few places you can start:

  • Your state or local Area Agency on Aging (AAA). These federally funded agencies offer a variety of services, which may include caregiver support and respite care, nutrition and meal delivery services, insurance counseling, long term care ombudsmen who can help with nursing home or assisted living concerns, and information about other programs in your area. You can find your nearest AAA using the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator.
  • The ARCH National Respite Network and Resource Center’s website can help you find respite programs near you.
  • Family Care Navigator, a service from the Family Caregiver Alliance, helps you locate caregiver support resources near you.
  • You can browse adult day care providers in your area with our service finder:

It’s also worth asking your loved one’s doctor for a referral to a social worker with an appropriate specialty, such as cancer care, dementia care, or geriatrics. The social worker will understand your loved one’s needs and be able to help you find respite services and other resources in your area.

When researching a program, ask if people who will spend time with your family member have any type of certification and if it’s from a reputable organization, such as the American Red Cross CNA (Certified Nurse Assistant) Training Program. If you decide to hire someone independently, interview the person thoroughly and check references.

How to afford respite care

Worries about cost can be one reason some caregivers don’t take advantage of respite care. But there may be help, so be sure to ask questions when talking with services in your area. For example:

  • Many adult day cares have sliding scale fees, meaning that you pay less if you have a lower income.
  • Medicaid can help cover adult day care and in-home care. Benefits vary from state to state.
  • If you’re caring for a veteran, the VA helps pay for various types of respite care.
  • Churches and other volunteer groups may offer free or low-cost respite services. For example, a church volunteer may be willing to come spend time at your home so you can go grocery shopping or take care of other errands alone.
  • Medicare will only pay for respite care if your loved one qualifies for the hospice benefit. Under the Medicare hospice benefit, your loved one can get respite care in a Medicare-approved hospital or skilled nursing facility for up to five days at a time. Medicare will pay 95 percent of the Medicare-approved amount for respite care.
  • Ask non-profit organizations about scholarships. For example, local chapters of the Alzheimer’s Association may be able to connect you with respite care scholarships; ask for the chapter’s family care coordinator.

Don’t forget about reaching out to your network of family and friends for help. If family members can’t give time, ask if they can offer financial support to cover adult day care needs or in-home professional care so that you can take a break.

Finally, try not to feel guilty. It can be exhausting being a caregiver and your health matters, too. Seeking help does not make you a failure. It’s important to remember that respite care benefits the person you’re caring for, as well. If you’re healthy and well-rested, you’ll be a better caregiver now and in the long run.

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