Family caregivers are becoming increasingly common. Whether you’re taking care of family members at home or you organize their care in a larger facility, it can be an exhausting job.
That doesn’t mean caregiving for an elderly loved one can’t be rewarding, but the risks of burnout, mental health problems, and physical health concerns are very real.
Caregivers need to take care of themselves as well as other people. And that should include a vacation from time to time, which has numerous very real benefits for mental and physical health.
If you’re caring for a loved one, you might wonder how you can make a vacation work. This information may help you plan a vacation as a caregiver:
The Role of a Family Caregiver
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, the work of a caregiver can take many forms. Many of us help our older, disabled, or sick relatives and friends every day without even realizing we could consider ourselves caregivers.
Around 44 million Americans provide unpaid, informal care every year to their adult family members and friends who have chronic conditions and illnesses.
Women provide more than 75% of caregiving support in America, and the economic value of unpaid contributions is estimated to be at least $375 billion.
Particular responsibilities can include helping a family member get dressed, take a shower, and take their medicine. You might buy groceries, cook, or do laundry for someone who can’t do it on their own.
Caregivers also might assist with physical therapy, feeding tubes, injections, and other medical procedures. They often make medical appointments, talk with doctors and health care providers, and stay on-call in the event a crisis comes up.
Many factors affect the demands placed on a caregiver. The type of illness is a major factor.
When someone has Alzheimer’s or dementia, for example, care can be much more stressful, largely because their behavior tends to be highly unpredictable.
Long-distance caregiving is a term used when someone has to drive more than an hour to help a loved one. When caregivers live in rural locations, there can also be more challenges because there are fewer available services and resources.
In the U.S., the typical caregiver is a woman in her 40s who also works outside the home and spends more than 20 hours a week providing unpaid care.
Most caregivers are employed, and there are a lot of situations where caregivers are themselves considered elderly.
Mental and Physical Effects of Being a Caregiver
When someone is a family caregiver, they’re also juggling the other parts of their lives. The stress and fatigue can be tremendous.
These people might put their own physical and emotional needs on the backburner, increasing their risk of developing depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
Caregiver burnout is also very common. Since the role is one that’s often long-term, the emotional effects can compound on one another over time.
When you go through burnout, you might feel exhausted not only physically but emotionally and mentally. Signs and symptoms of stress among caregivers might include:
- Anxiety or depression
- Always feeling tired
- Problems sleeping
- Overreactions to small things
- Physical health problems that are new or worsening
- Problems concentrating
- Feeling resentful
- Eating, drinking, or smoking more
- Neglecting responsibilities
- Not engaging in leisure activities once enjoyed
Signs of burnout can include:
- Low energy levels
- Frequently getting sick and seeming to have a low immune system
- You’re always tired even after you sleep
- Neglecting your own needs
- Little satisfaction in your life
- Problems relaxing
- Hopelessness and a sense of helplessness
There are a lot of things you can do as a family caregiver to reduce negative mental health effects and burnout.
Some of these are small things that you can easily integrate into your daily life, like practicing acceptance and self-care. But there are bigger things you should do as well, including taking time off for yourself.
The Benefits of Taking a Vacation
When you take a vacation, even if you stay relatively close to home, it can reduce your stress, improve your mental health, and improve your productivity in all areas of your life.
Particular benefits of vacations include:
- They reduce your risk of heart attack by as much as 30% if you’re a man and 50% if you’re a woman.
- You can improve your energy levels when you get back home.
- Discovering new things or getting a change of scenery can increase the dopamine levels of your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good.
- When you spend your leisure time well, you’re going to feel happier in your life.
- Traveling can increase the neural connections in your brain.
- A study of hundreds of lawyers found that vacations reduced depression and provided some protection against work-related stress.
- In a small Japanese study, even a short vacation had benefits. A three-day leisure trip led to a reduction in perceived levels of stress and also reduced levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone.
- People who take regular vacations might enjoy longer life expectancies.
- Traveling together is good for bonding and building relationships or strengthening them with people in your life, such as your spouse or children. When you’re juggling so many different parts of your life, your relationships with the people you love can suffer. Experiencing new things together creates deep bonding.
While you might realize getting away for travel could be beneficial to you as a family caregiver, you may also wonder how to make it work logistically.
Planning a Vacation as a Caregiver
The first thing you should do as a caregiver is giving yourself permission to take a vacation. Getting past that barrier is often one of the hardest things to do. Once you do that, you can start to make plans.
Think about your relative’s level of ability to care for themselves.
If they can mostly take care of themselves, you might be able to find help from a friend or family member or perhaps a neighbor. You could also get in touch with a church or synagogue volunteer.
You’ll, of course, want someone you can trust, which is why a family member might be ideal. If you want to get a family member to help you, start with a family meeting or video call.
You can let them know what your plans are and how long you might be away.
If your loved one can’t stay on their own at all, you might need in-home care. In-home care can include one of three general options. One is having a relative stay in the home with the person you care for.
If you’re paid as a family caregiver, you should arrange to pay the family member during the time they take over your duties.
If your parent has a caregiver during the day typically that helps you, you might be able to pay that person to stay overnight. The advantage of this option is that it’s someone your relative is already familiar with and comfortable with.
You might switch caregivers, depending on how long you’re going to be gone. For example, if you have two aides that help you typically, they might take turns doing overnight stays.
Another option is hiring a licensed home care aide.
Depending on your situation, you can also explore respite care. Respite care is something nursing homes and assisted living facilities will often offer.
With respite care, there’s a range of provided care which might include everything from general help with daily tasks to skilled nursing.
The costs of respite care can be anywhere from $100 to $250 a night, depending on where you live, and insurance might cover some of the cost.
If you’re going to use respite care, you should get your relative adjusted to the environment before you leave. For example, they can go to respite care for a few hours during the day, and then gradually, you can try an overnight visit.
There are also aging life care experts you can speak to. These are also known as aging life care professionals or ALCPs. This role was once called a geriatric care manager.
They’re a great resource to have if you’re a caregiver, regardless of whether or not you’re planning a vacation.
They can help you identify resources in your community, look into assisted living for seniors, and explain the options available to you if you’re going to be out of town.
These professionals can also serve as a point of contact if there’s an emergency. They can visit your relative while you’re away, and they can be on-call like you are normally.
You have to think of vacations as a way to invest in yourself so that you can be the best version possible of yourself in every role you fill.
Even as a caregiver, there’s no reason you can’t get away. It may take more planning, but it’s certainly both possible and worth it.