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Kathryn Haslanger

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Who Needs a Vacation? Family Caregivers!

Posted: 08/09/11 05:21 PM ET

It's August, and for many of us, that means vacation time. This is the perfect time for family caregivers to remember the importance of taking a break from their caregiving responsibilities. Many people who hold full-time jobs use the summer as the time to get away, to try something new, relax and recharge their batteries. And time off has been proven to be invaluable -- a study published in the year 2000 in the journal "Psychosomatic Medicine" showed that taking regular vacations is associated with a longer, healthier life. In the heart health study, over 12,000 men were followed over nine years. The men who took vacations most years were 20 percent less likely to die of any cause than those who forewent regular vacations. The vacationers were also 30 percent less likely to die of heart disease.1

Of course, it's not always easy to take vacation. In the United States, it is commonplace for workers, overburdened at work and in fear of losing jobs or unwilling to forfeit income, to forego vacation time altogether. According to a 2010 survey by Expedia.com, the average employed American worker received 18 vacation days last year, but used only 14 of them. Altogether, Americans gave up 448 million vacation days in 2010. "Only 38 percent of Americans said that they take all of their vacation days, with most only using a small portion of the coveted benefit,"2 according to the Expedia survey.

For family caregivers, many of whom find themselves with round-the-clock responsibilities, taking a vacation can be especially challenging. Leaving a family member who requires daily help can be impossible unless some kind of care situation can be lined up. And even when it is possible to find someone to step in, many caregivers feel guilty leaving, or are afraid to give up control for fear that "no one else will take as good care as I do." As a result, many caregivers go years without a formal vacation, or even brief breaks, from their caregiving duties.

Respite care is a service designed to give caregivers the chance to leave their family members with someone they trust so they can take a break of a few hours, days or even weeks. Unfortunately, respite programs are still sometimes hard to find, and not all insurance programs cover their cost. VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans, with options for residents of New York City who are eligible for Medicaid, Medicare or both, does offer a respite benefit for caregivers.

Mary A. of Staten Island is the family caregiver for her two brothers who are members in VNSNY CHOICE, which provides for several weeks of caregiver respite per year. For overnight respite, her brothers stay in the two beds devoted to caregiver respite at nearby Eger Health Care and Rehabilitation Center. Eger offers the full range of medical services, so even those caregivers whose family members need round-the-clock skilled nursing care can feel confident utilizing this service. Mary's benefit allows her to take up to two weeks of respite at a time; however, she chooses to break up her time in 3-day weekends throughout the year.

On weekends that Mary's brothers stay at Eger, she typically stays home -- shopping, visiting friends and catching up on sleep. For Mary, respite has been a life-saver. "I know I can get a really peaceful night's sleep when my brothers are at Eger. I always come back to my caregiving duties refreshed and recommitted to the important work I do."

Maria L. Hood, LCSW, ACSW, Director of Discharge Planning at White Plains Hospital Center where VNSNY is a preferred provider of home care services, says this kind of "staycation" is a lifeline for caregivers. "All caregivers need a break from their responsibilities to maintain their own physical and mental health. A break doesn't need to be a long, expensive vacation far from home. It can be a walk around the block or a visit with friends, or, as in the case of Mary, an uninterrupted night's sleep. White Plains Hospital is aware of the value of this kind of respite, and therefore offers a caregiver support program with a dedicated room, where caregivers can escape the hospital environment during a loved one's stay and relax."

Mary feels lucky that her brothers so enjoy the time they spend at Eger. "They have access to all the same recreational programs and socialization as the full-time residents," Mary says. "Knowing they're comfortable and well-taken care of enables me to relax fully at home and re-charge my batteries."

Do you have information to share about respite care in your community, or have you discovered a unique way to unwind and recharge from your family caregiver responsibilities? Please keep the conversation going by adding your comments or questions below.

You can learn more about respite care from the U.S. Administration on Aging and the Department of Health and Human Services via this link: http://www.aoa.gov/AoARoot/Press_Room/For_The_Press/pr/archive/2010/September/09_07_10.aspx. For more information on VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans visit http://2011.vnsnychoice.org/, and for information about respite services at Eger Health Care and Rehabilitation Center visit http://www.eger.org/.

1 Psychosomatic Medicine, Volume 62: pages 608-612, 2000.
2 http://money.cnn.com/2011/05/25/pf/unused_vacation_days/index.htm