Respite Care: How Can I Plan It Better?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on November 15, 2023
9 min read

Respite care is a special name for a short-term break for caregivers. When you look after someone who’s sick or disabled, it’s a 24-hour job. You need a break from time to time to look after your own needs. That’s where respite care can help.

Respite care can take place:

  • In your home
  • At special day care centers
  • In residential centers that offer overnight stays

Your breaks can be as long or short as you need them to be. You can set up respite care for a few hours, a day, a few days, or a few weeks.

Someone who has an illness or disability may need care around the clock. Caregivers sometimes need time to rest and relax, go on vacation, shop, go to appointments, work, or exercise.

You might use respite care if you’re in charge of someone who has a condition like:

  • Cancer
  • A brain injury
  • Alzheimer’s disease or dementia
  • A stroke
  • Blindness

Respite care offers a safe, comfortable place for your loved one while you’re away. Trained providers can sit and talk with someone who’s disabled or ill. They may also help your loved one:

  • Bathe
  • Dress
  • Eat or drink
  • Take medications.
  • Exercise
  • Enjoy the outdoors
  • Get in and out of bed

In-home respite care can also handle household chores for the caregiver, such as laundry, preparing meals, and shopping. Or you could arrange for someone to drive the person you care for to medical appointments. 

Respite caregivers may do something as simple as sit with someone for an afternoon while a regular caregiver takes a break. 

You can also choose group respite care. Usually, this takes place at assisted living facilities, adult adult day care centers, or community centers.

These programs might include music, dance, or art classes led by trained providers. They often offer group meals, entertainment, or just time to socialize with others.

Someone who’s elderly or ill may feel isolated if they’re at home all the time. Caregivers can feel isolated, too. Respite care may be a welcome break for both of you.

Respite care allows you to take a timeout from your caregiving responsibilities. You may need a regularly scheduled break, last-minute help when an emergency comes up, or a longer rest to recharge your batteries. You may be away for a few hours or a few weeks. 

A respite caregiver could be a friend or family member who steps in. Or you might hire a trained professional who can take on more complex tasks. 

You can choose to have someone come to your home, or your loved one can go somewhere else for respite care. 

Respite care at home

If you care for a loved one at home, respite care can come to you.

In-home respite care providers may act as companions for someone who’s sick or elderly. They keep them company and make sure they don’t hurt themselves.

Home health aides may be able to do more, like help to bathe, dress, groom, take medications, or eat. 

A home health agency is a good place to start looking for a respite caregiver.  Your local department on aging is another resource to tap. These organizations offer help finding respite care:

An advantage of in-home respite care is thatthe setting remains familiar. 

Adult day services

You can take your loved one to an adult day center for respite care for a few hours or the whole day.

Adult day centers may offer exercise, music classes, or meals supervised by trained staff. Some programs will pick up your loved at home and bring them back at the end of the session. This can be a good choice for someone who enjoys socializing. Being around other people can provide stimulation that may slow the progression of conditions like Alzheimer's and dementia. You can find adult day programs at churches, community centers, hospitals, and schools. 

Respite care facilities

You may think of assisted living facilities as apartment complexes for seniors who can’t live on their own anymore. But some offer short-term stays for respite care.

It’s also called short-term assisted living or residential respite care.

Short-term assisted living allows you to take a trip for as long as a few weeks while your loved one stays in a safe, comfortable apartment, room, or suite. Trained staff provide care day and night.

The staff can help your loved one eat meals, take medications on schedule, dress, bathe, and exercise in classes or outdoors. They usually offer housekeeping, too.

Some facilities have hair stylists, gyms, religious services, and supervised outings. They may be able to take your loved one to medical appointments or shopping.

Make sure any respite care service, program, or facility is licensed in your state and has insurance in case of an accident. You can also ask for the credentials, insurance, or experience of any care provider, and talk to them ahead of time.

If you care for more than one loved one, like both of your parents, check whether certain care programs will look after multiple people.

You can ask health care providers to recommend respite services. Advocacy and support organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association, Family Voices, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the ALS Association, University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDDs), The Arc of the US, or United Cerebral Palsy also keep lists of respite providers in your area.

If you join a support group, you may also meet other caregivers that you could trade respite shifts with.

Other important questions to ask before you set up respite care include:

  • How long can respite care sessions last?
  • Does the facility offer transportation?
  • What services are included in the price?
  • How far in advance do I need to book sessions or stays?
  • What kind of special training do the caregivers have?
  • How do you evaluate caregivers?
  • What plans do you have for fire or weather emergencies?
  • How does the program or facility keep track of patients’ medical conditions or medications?

You may want to talk to a few care providers or visit several places to find the best fit. If possible, let your loved one take part. This will make you both feel more at ease with respite care.

The cost of respite care depends on the type of agency, the services you use, and how long you need it. 

Costs also vary depending on where you live. But as a general guideline, an in-home caregiver gets paid around $26 an hour. The median cost for a day of adult day services is $80.  The average cost for a day in an assisted living center is $152, though facilities may charge different rates for temporary stays.

Will insurance pay for respite care?

Private health insurance generally doesn't cover respite care, but some long-term care policies will. Check your policy to find your out-of-pocket costs or call your insurer for more information.

Will Medicare pay for respite care?

For hospice care, Medicare will cover most of the cost for up to 5 consecutive days of respite care in a hospital or skilled nursing facility. Medicaid may also provide help; programs vary by state.

Are there programs to help veterans?

Some veterans are eligible to get respite care coverage, usually limited to 30 days a year.

What are other sources of financial help?

Check with your state’s developmental disabilities agency or your area agency on aging to learn more about what’s available. Some states have programs to help offset the cost of respite care. Check the Lifespan Respite Voucher website to see whether you qualify. Caregiver groups and nonprofits that focus on specific conditions, such as the Alzheimer’s Association, also have resources.

The first obstacle might be admitting that you need a break. You can become so focused on caring for another person that you feel like you can’t take time to look after yourself, too. Let yourself take breaks now and then so you don’t get mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. When you come back, you’ll be able to focus more energy on your role, and that will be a boost for the person you’re caring for.

It may be hard for you to trust someone else to take over your caregiver role, even briefly. It may seem easier simply to do it all yourself. Some caregivers feel guilty about taking a break, fearing their loved one will feel abandoned or dislike the person providing respite care. But respite care can benefit the person being cared for, allowing them the stimulation of new people and situations. 

Do your research to find the options that work best for your situation and how you can pay for it. When you’re looking at a specific program, ask as many questions as you need, and get references or referrals to help set your mind at ease. Remember, you might need a respite caregiver in an emergency one day, and it's good to have a relationship established already.

Whether hiring someone on your own or using an agency or program, ask about training and qualifications.

If money is a concern, you might also be able to set up a swap with another caregiver who’s dealing with a similar situation, such as a child who has special needs. Or ask family, friends, neighbors, or faith-based groups for help.

Be open with your loved one and the rest of your family about why you need respite care and what you’re planning. They might want to be involved in the process.

Caregiver burnout is exhaustion – physical, mental, and emotional – that can happen when you're focused on taking care of someone else. About 60% of caregivers have symptoms of burnout, studies have found.

Burnout can make you less able to be a good caregiver. It can also affect your own health, especially if you delay scheduling medical appointments for yourself, or if mental health issues like depression or anxiety aren't treated. In extreme cases, the impact of burnout can be life-threatening for caregivers.

Taking care of yourself and avoiding burnout could ultimately allow you to care for your loved one at home longer.

To fight caregiver burnout, you can: 

  • Talk to your doctor, a social worker, therapist, or other mental health worker about your concerns. 
  • Make time for your own medical appointments, exercise, and sleep.
  • Eat well-balanced meals
  • Learn to ask for help, and to say "yes" when others offer it.
  • Set goals that are realistic. 
  • Accept that you may have negative feelings. 

Respite care is a way for caregivers to take time out from their responsibilities, whether for a few hours or a few days. Someone providing respite care can come to your home, or the person you're caring for could go to a program at a community center, assisted living facility, or hospital. Most insurance companies don't cover the cost, but some states have programs to help, as do private charities. Studies have found that respite care is good both for the caregiver and the person in their care.

What does it mean when someone is in respite care?

Someone in respite care is in the care of someone other than their regular caregiver. That could mean a friend or family member sitting with them for a few hours, a trained professional coming to your home, or a visit to an adult day services center or other facility. 

What are the disadvantages of respite care?

One study of respite care found that it worked best when the caregivers trusted their replacements and had good communication with them. Respite care didn't work as well when the respite caregiver was a poor match for the family's needs.

How do you find respite care for someone with dementia?

The Alzheimer's Association has links to useful resources.