What Is Respite Care?

Short term care to provide relief to a person's primary caregiver

Respite care offers a respite, or a break, to overworked caregivers. During respite care, an external nurse or aide temporarily helps tend to the person who needs care.

While respite care is meant to offer a reprieve for primary caregivers, this temporary assistance can also be refreshing for a person who needs care. They can meet new people or try new activities.

Caregiving can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Many caregivers report feeling burnout. Over time, caregivers may need to take a breather to run errands, relax, or fulfill their other responsibilities.

When caregivers can take some time to refresh their own mental and physical health, they may be able to take better care of their loved ones. Respite staff serve as mediators between people who need care and primary caregivers.

A man sits on the edge of a bed. He holds a walker, preparing to stand up. A nurse stands beside to help him.
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Respite Care Options

Caregivers and people who need care can pursue three primary categories of respite care. Any of these programs may last from hours to weeks, depending on the person's individual needs. However, many respite programs tend to encompass shorter periods of time: several hours or a couple of days long.

In-Home Respite Care

Families may invite a respite professional for an in-home program. This option is especially helpful for people who want to maintain the comfort, security, or convenience of staying in their own home. For example, a nurse may visit a person's home for several days when the primary caregiver is away on a business trip.

Respite Day Care

In respite day care, people who need care leave their homes for short periods of time to visit an external facility. Some respite programs lead different day programs. These activities can include games, educational lessons, socializing, or relaxation.

As the person who needs care enjoys their outing, the primary caregiver can spend the day catching up on chores or taking a break. After participating in the program, the person goes back home with their primary caregiver.

Residential Respite Care

People who need care can opt for longer-term residential care. These respite options involve hospice centers, nursing homes, and live-in rehabilitation centers. 

Who Can Benefit

People with various needs and conditions can benefit from respite care. Many respite programs specialize in particular areas, such as autism or dementia.

Mental Health Conditions

Respite programs across the country care for people with mental illnesses. These programs often provide a more welcoming atmosphere than a traditional psychiatric hospital. Unlike other respite programs, these mental health facilities are open to people who may not have a caregiver in their daily lives.

For example, in some mental health respite programs, people can enroll themselves if they feel that they are at risk of suicide or other self-harm. During their respite stay, these people may receive therapy or learn positive coping mechanisms.

Older People

Eldercare remains one of the most popular forms of respite assistance. As a person ages, they may lose the capacity to live independently. Aging people may need more help tending to their homes and their own physical needs.

While loved ones may intervene to assist these elderly people, they may need help learning how to properly care for the person. Respite workers can help with a number of tasks such as moving a person to prevent bedsores, bathing the person, sorting medicine, and helping with important chores.   

Terminal Illness

In-home respite visits can be especially helpful for cancer patients and their families. People with terminal illnesses may need additional care as they progress through medical treatments that might leave them in pain or exhausted.

Chronic Conditions and Disabilities

Many respite programs are geared toward people with disabilities or people with chronic illnesses. Respite day programs might provide specialized equipment that is accessible for people of all abilities.

For example, a respite program designed for people in wheelchairs might include playing basketball or doing yoga. A respite program for deaf people may include an ASL poetry slam. Such programs can also help provide people with disabilities a sense of belonging as they connect with peers in their community.

How to Find Respite Care

Respite care can be a positive step in the right direction for families who need some extra support. However, many primary caregivers worry or feel intimidated as they invite someone else to care for their loved ones. Here are some ways to prepare for a respite program.

  • Friends and family: Sometimes, a caregiver only needs respite help for a couple of hours or a day. In these cases, you may consider asking a family member or friend to assist the patient, especially if the patient needs minimal supervision or can care for many of their own needs.
  • Community programs: Some community centers and libraries provide accommodations for their programs. Even if these programs advertise such accommodations, call several days in advance to ensure that these recreational activities would suit the patient’s needs. 
  • Insurance: Consult your insurance policy to see which types of respite programs may be covered under your current plan.
  • Ask for recommendations: When looking for a respite worker, consider asking your local healthcare professionals, senior centers, disability advocacy centers, and nursing or residential homes for their recommendations. Likely, people in these organizations can suggest aide workers.
  • Interview: For a longer respite relationship, schedule interviews with potential aides and ask state health agencies to describe the qualifications you should seek in an aide. When at all possible, the patient should directly participate in this decision-making process.
  • What to bring: For day programs, ask the respite center what you should bring. Pack a bag with emergency contact information, the patient’s medications, and other appropriate supplies.

Questions to Consider

Before choosing a respite care program, it’s important for the person who needs care and the primary caregiver to have an honest conversation with one another to discuss their needs. Some questions to consider include the following:

  • Why do we need respite care?
  • How might respite care help our relationship?
  • How long should the respite last?
  • What does the primary caregiver need during the respite—a break, time to fulfill work or home responsibilities, or something else?
  • What does the person who needs care need during the respite: entertainment, minimal help with basic needs, intensive rehabilitation, or something else?
  • What do we want from a respite caregiver?
  • What materials and emergency contacts should we prepare for the respite worker while the primary caregiver is away?
  • Would the person who needs care prefer to be in or out of their own home during the respite? 

A Word From Verywell

A loved one’s health is important to the entire family. While you may do your best as a caregiver, it’s normal to sometimes feel burnt out or overwhelmed. Remember that caregiving is a community effort, and you don’t have to do it alone.

When you’re caring for someone else, a respite program can help you reclaim the time you need to care for yourself, too. Whether you ask a family friend to help for an afternoon or seek out more long-term options, respite programs can help give your loved one the best quality of care.

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Article Sources
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  1. Family Caregiver Alliance. Depression and caregiving. Updated 2016.

  2. Applebaum AJ. Survival of the fittest … caregiver? Palliative & Supportive Care. 2017 Feb;15(1):1-2. doi:10.1017/s1478951516001097

  3. National Institute on Aging. What is respite care? Updated May 1, 2017.

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