The first time we left my father at a care home for a week of respite, I went home and cried.
Damn that respite guilt.
I knew leaving him there was the right thing to do, because my brother and I needed a break. Dad was anxious about being away from home but accepted the reason why. The care home was only a few minutes drive from home – it was comfortable and the staff were friendly. The nurse handling his admission took all the relevant notes and we had packed everything he needed. He would be fine. Really.
Partly I felt guilty simply for leaving him. By definition, someone who needs care depends on others for their needs. It can make them vulnerable and I felt that even more strongly as we drove away and left him behind. (It’s also about control and trust, but that’s enough of my hang-ups).
Partly it was anxiety. I know Dad’s little quirks, so despite his communication difficulties I usually grasp the essence of what he’s trying to say. But would the care home staff? What if he wanted something but couldn’t make himself understood? What if he woke in the night and was distressed at being somewhere unfamiliar? What if he felt lonely or frightened?
It’s understandable, but I’ve come to understand that sometimes good enough is good enough.
This may sound a little harsh but, at the end of the day, the key thing about respite is that Dad is kept safe and comfortable. It won’t be as good as home, but for Dad few things are. That doesn’t mean he can’t survive perfectly well. Sometimes the carer has to come first.
So if you are a carer, especially if you are new to the role, remember this:
Respite is not a luxury.
Other people who do a demanding job get time off, so why shouldn’t we? You wouldn’t tell a midwife, a police officer or a helicopter pilot to work seven days a week, 52 weeks a year without a break. Caring is demanding – physically, mentally and emotionally. Time out to relax, to pursue your own interests, to look after your own physical and mental health, is vital. You can’t be a good carer (or a functioning human being) without it.
And respite is precious and should be treated as such. It’s not the time to do the housework or the DIY (unless you really enjoy it). It’s not the time to do what other people think you should do. It’s the time to do whatever the heck you like.
You can sit in the garden and watch the grass grow; learn to do the cha cha cha; make an origami model of St Paul’s Cathedral or hoola hoop naked around your living room. Anything that takes your mind off caring, helps you relax or makes you giggle uncontrollably is just fine.
On that first respite break, the nurse told me I could call the next day to see how Dad had settled in. “Oh, he’s fine,” she said cheerfully, “seemed to sleep well and ate a hearty breakfast this morning. He’s got a good appetite, hasn’t he?”
So it was a classic case of me fretting while Dad was just getting on with it. There’s definitely a lesson in there somewhere…
When we picked Dad up from that first respite stay, he was delighted to see us and so, funnily enough, was I. He really appreciated the comforts of home when he got back and, despite the demands of looking after him, I realised it was lovely to have him back too.
Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it’s respite that keeps you sane.