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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published March 06 2011

Bursack: Caregiver’s vacation offers good medicine

Dear Carol: I’ve been the primary caregiver for my dad for years. He’s now in assisted living and is doing well, though he still depends on me to do many things for him, including setting up his medications.

The biggest thing is that he’s used to my daily visits. Now, I have a chance to take a week’s vacation with a friend. Dad gets sulky when I talk about going, so then I feel guilty even considering it. Is it bad for him if I go? – Penny

Dear Penny: Your compassion for your dad is admirable. He’s not as physically dependent on you as in the past, but he’s still emotionally dependent. In his heart, I’m sure he wants you to have a good time, but his increasing vulnerability, and need to have non-family members help with his care, may also have increased his need for your attention.

Change, even for a week, can be hard for vulnerable people to accept. Even though the thought of your being out of town for a week panics him, you should probably push forward. You are making sure he is cared for. His environment is familiar. You can let him know that the assisted living facility will have your contact information, should the staff want to get in touch with you.

Before you leave, you could write short, upbeat notes to your dad and ask the assisted living staff to deliver one to him, daily, while you’re gone. I used this approach to help my dad through a time when a flu outbreak prevented me from visiting him in the nursing home for a week. You could also mail your dad cards from your destination, but since mail can be delayed, I’d suggest leaving notes with the staff for daily contact.

If you continue to feel guilty about the trip, you won’t likely feel as refreshed by it as you could be if you relax. Try to re-program your mind by talking with other families who have loved ones living in the assisted living center, as well as the staff. Most of them will assure you that taking a vacation is healthy for you, and by extension, healthy for your dad.

Coming back refreshed can make you a better, more patient caregiver, in the long run, so try to detach from your dad’s fears. Enjoy yourself, bring home pictures and a souvenir for your dad and then let him tell his friends about your trip. He, too, may feel recharged when he sees your smiling face.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.