Rest and Relaxation for Caregivers: How to Take - and Enjoy - a Vacation

Jacqueline Marcell, an expert caregiver who went without a vacation for five years as she cared for her elderly parents, explains how you can squeeze a vacation into your schedule with as little stress as possible.

I get so many emails every day from caregivers who are so stressed out, often saying they'd love to take a break and get away for a little vacation, but are just too afraid to leave their loved one and go. They always ask me if they will ever have a normal life again. I experienced that awful feeling while I was taking care of my parents and didn't take a vacation for over five years. I'll emphatically tell you this-I wouldn't do it again! I always email back and say, "Please listen to me and put yourself first! You don't want to get sick and shorten your own life simply becasue you were a good daughter to your elderly mother."

Caring for chronically ill loved ones is one of life's greatest challenges, and caregivers often feel guilty if they try to schedule time away. Also, fond memories of past vacations when their loved one was healthy can create a downward spiral with feelings of loss and sadness.

Realize you are not alone and that more than fifty million people, one in every five Americans, help loved ones who can no longer help themselves-but don't be like so many who neglects their own well-being and risk getting sick yourself.

Here are steps caregivers can take to reduce stress and enjoy a well-deserved vacation:

  1. Take Care of You First: You can't be an effective caregiver if you are so stressed out that you get sick and have to cancel a vacation. As hard as it is to find the time and motivation, realize that it's imperative that you nurture yourself.

-Eat healthily: set limits on high fat and processed foods, caffeine, and too many sugar-laden treats that can increase fatigue.

-Exercise often: take a walk, stretch, lift weights, do isometrics

-Get proper sleep: take naps when necessary

-Get out and get a little daily sunlight

-Read your list of Gratitudes several times a day

-Meditate: practice deep breathing and visualize happy times

-Attend a support group regularly: solutions will present themselves

-Do things you enjoy: read, music, hobbies, crafts, movies, etc

-Use a hand sanitizer: viral and bacterial infections can be reduced

-Treat depression: see a therapist and consider taking an anti-depressant

-Get yearly physicals and appropriate tests: cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, mammogram, prostate, colonoscopy, etc

  1. Plan Ahead, Organize, Pace Yourself: Give yourself plenty of time to plan a vacation, but be careful not to take on more than you can manage. Make lists of things that must be done before the trip, and secondary lists of things you would like to accomplish if possible. Be sure to set strict limits with yourself and others of what you can and cannot do.

  2. Ask For Help: Don't wait for others to ask what they can do to help. Instead, ask everyone to pick the tasks from your list that they feel comfortable with. In addition to the list of caregiving and household chores, include vacation-planning tasks such as:

-Take the car in for service, cleaning, tire rotation

-Get maps/brochures of vacation destinations

-Make itineraries, check availabilities

-Get reservations/tickets

-Stock up on groceries/cook meals ahead for the freezer

-Refill medications, stock up on supplies

-Call agencies and interview caregivers and facilities for respite care

-Make a schedule with details of all duties for the caregiver(s)

-Organize back-up help

-Distribute an emergency plan with contact information to everyone

  1. Be Positive: Having a vacation to look forward to will help you feel less deprived of a normal life. Be aware that having fun, laughing, and focusing on pleasurable things, rather than ill health, will help to keep you in emotional balance. The break will recharge your batteries.

  2. Use Adult Day Care: Enrolling elderly loved ones in Adult Day Care is often the very best thing for them. They'll be busy enjoying activities like: singing, crafts, cooking, gardening and bingo with professionals who know how to motivate and manage them, helping them focus less on your absence.

  1. Seek Professional Help to Cope: Numerous resources are available to help caregivers. Consider hiring a Geriatric Care Manager, who can personally guide you through the complicated maze of eldercare. Also, many faith-based organizations offer support to family caregivers.

-Your local Area Agency on Aging or Department of Aging

-Eldercare Locator (800) 677-1116

-Alzheimer's Association (800) 272-3900

-National Adult Day Services Association (212) 494-0755

  1. Shift Perspective: Resolve to stay in the present, savor the good moments and guard against focusing on the decline of your loved one. Imagine yourself in their position, needing a caregiver to do things for you all of the time. Now ask yourself what you'd want for your loved ones who'd be taking care of you? Would you want them to be continually sad, depressed, burdened, isolated, and not living up to their potential, following their dreams or even taking a little vacation-because of you?

Of course not.

Realize that your happiness is what your loved one wants most for you (even if it doesn't seem like it), and that you do them honor by living a balanced and fulfilled life, which includes enjoying vacations.

To learn more about the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and how to find treatment, read our guide to Understanding Alzheimer's Disease.