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Yes, you can take a vacation — even if you're caring for aging parents. Here’s how

Liz O'donnell
Dec. 20, 2018

I need a break.
I want to run away.
I need a vacation!!!

These are posts from an online support group for people who are taking care of elderly parents. Family caregivers may day dream about vacation a lot — but actually taking a break is often a different story. How could you ever get away when you have so much responsibility? Who would take care of your parent? How would your parent feel if you left? How would you feel leaving them at home?

If thinking about what would happen if you tried to get away feels more like a nightmare than a dream, don’t despair. You can take a vacation, even if you are caring for your parents. Of course, your caregiving years are not the time to hop in your car and hit the open road with no destination or to head to the airport and buy a ticket to anywhere. Think strategy, not spontaneity. Taking time away requires forethought. With careful planning, you can get away for a weekend, a week or maybe even longer.

To make the planning process manageable, organize it into three major categories: coverage, communication and conscience. First, determine who will fill in for you, and then work out a communication plan for while you’re away. Finally, you’ll need a strategy for the all-too-common guilt that accompanies putting yourself first when you’re caring for someone else.

Coverage: Who will fill in for you

The first step in planning your getaway is, of course, determining who will fill in for you. You probably have more options than you think. If a sibling or friend can’t, or won’t, help, you can hire a temporary home aide or look into a short-term respite stay for your parent. Many assisted living and skilled rehab facilities and skilled nursing homes offer week-long stays. The best way to find respite is to call facilities near your parent’s home and ask about availability and rates.

Carolyn Miller Parr, a family caregiver and co-author, of “Love’s Way: Living Peacefully With Your Family as Your Parents Age,” asked her two out-of-town siblings to each cover for a week with their parents in Washington, D.C., so she could take a trip. She billed the arrangement as a semi-vacation for them, as well.

“They were sad not to be able to have the face time I had with our parents and welcomed the opportunity,” Parr says. “One advantage is that I lived in a destination city where there was a lot of good, free entertainment. My dad was an interested tourist himself — even in his 90s — so they could sightsee together, as long as he didn’t have to walk too far or stand too long.”

When Laurie, who lives with her mother in Boston, learned her brother was planning a visit to see their mother, she emailed him and asked if he could add an additional 36 hours to his stay so she could get away for a few days. He was happy to do it. Even though he was family, she still needed to prepare him.  

“I wrote out two to three pages of instructions for my brother on the care and feeding of our mother — everything from medications and meals, to the night light in the bathroom, to the quirky hot water heater, plus the arrangements I had made for the medical appointment he would need to take her to,” Laurie says. “I optimistically included a reminder to empty her pockets first if he was going to do her laundry. He had lots of questions, which we went over before I left.”

Laurie’s destination? A hotel just across town.

“The destination wasn't the point; it was the getting away, and the chance for silence and solitude and rest,” she says.

While it may be easier for everyone if your parents are familiar with your fill-in, it’s not a requirement. If you’re hiring temporary help, consider having your parent help choose the caregiver. At a minimum, introduce the temporary caregiver to your parent in advance, so they can start to get comfortable with each other.

Rose Reif, owner of Reif Counseling Services in Cary, North Carolina, breaks the coverage planning into four steps:

  1. Find a reliable substitute caregiver.

  2. Show them how to provide care including administering medication, arranging transportation, assisting with daily living activities and preparing meals. “Write down everything, and include pictures if you can, but also physically do the activities with them present, explaining why you're doing what you're doing and answering their questions,” Reif recommends.

  3. Have the substitute fill in while you are present.

  4. Finally, have the substitute fill in with you nearby but not onsite.

“I recommend that people repeat steps three and four until all parties are truly comfortable,” Reif says. “Following this plan gives caregivers peace of mind that they really can trust the substitute.”

Communication: Staying in touch while you’re away

Once you’ve found a fill-in, think about how you will be in touch during your trip. Will you want daily updates? Will you make yourself available to answer questions? Do you only want to be contacted in an emergency? If so, be clear about what constitutes an emergency in your mind. Laurie said her brother sent her texts throughout the weekend he covered for her. The senior shuttle didn't show. Can't get through to doctor — voicemail system from hell. How do you make hot cocoa?

You also need to think about and plan for how the temporary caregiver will communicate, if needed, with any medical personnel.

“Due to HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the replacement caregiver must be on record to care and take the loved one to the hospital, doctor or other medical facility,” says James Colozzo, author of “You Got to Do What You Got to Do: My Experience as a Caregiver Taking Care of My Parents for Over 20 Years.” “They must also be on record to receive health information in your absence. Don’t forget the obvious: insurance information, a list of medications and ailments, contact information of all physicians and medical facilities that you use, as well as location, directions.”

Conscience: Dealing with caregiver guilt

Perhaps the most challenging part of taking a vacation as a caregiver is giving yourself permission to get away. Janet, of Homewood, Alabama, who booked a trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico with her husband prior to her mother being diagnosed with metastatic cancer, felt guilty “for even thinking about going on vacation.”

Maybe you’re worried that your parent doesn’t like the idea of you leaving, even if only for a few days, and so therefore you should stay home. Psychology Today labels guilt based on shoulds “irrational guilt” and says one way to overcome it is to “define your own values and stance.” In other words, remind yourself that you deserve a vacation, let your parents know you are taking it and resist the urge to justify your decision.

Or maybe your guilt stems from worrying that something will happen to your parent while you are away. This type of thinking is unproductive worrying, writes Dr. Robert L. Leahy, the author of “The Worry Cure: 7 Steps to Stop Worry From Stopping You,” where we imagine worst-case scenarios. He suggests the best way to overcome it is to accept your own limitations. You can’t control everything that happens in your parent’s life, and whatever might happen while you are away could just as easily happen while you are home.

So now that you’ve planned for coverage, communication and your conscience, all you need to plan is your itinerary!

Read next: Maintaining family relationships while caring for an aging loved one

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