Updated April 4, 2022 . AmFam Team
There are amazing people out there who dedicate so much time and energy to taking care of the ones they love through sickness, old age and life’s other challenges. But who cares for the caregiver?
That’s where you can step in! If you’re looking for a way to help out in your community, and would prefer to donate your time instead of your money, then volunteering as a respite caregiver is a great way to help someone in need — while also filling your life with a sense of purpose and philanthropy.
For Debbie Tahany, a recently retired testing engineer specialist at American Family Insurance, volunteering as a respite caregiver was the perfect fit. “I love people. I love my community. I love my faith, which teaches me to care for others,” she explained. When she started volunteering through her parish in 2018, she was looking forward to giving back to her community — but quickly discovered she got even more than she gave.
Let’s take a look at Debbie’s experience as a respite care volunteer to learn more about how this small act of giving your time can make an impactful difference to other’s lives.
A respite care volunteer is someone who provides temporary relief to a primary caregiver of a sick, aging or disabled person, typically a family member. This allows the caregiver a break while the care receiver still has safety, supervision and companionship.
Primary caretakers are usually a spouse or a family member who are on duty 24/7. Being a primary caregiver can be exhausting and sometimes emotionally tolling, so offering your time as a respite care volunteer provides the caregiver the opportunity to recharge and have balance in their life. “I’ve seen the need for respite,” Debbie says, whose grandparents lived with her and her family. “It brings me joy to ease the heaviness that caretakers bear. I reap the reward, too.”
By volunteering your time as a respite caregiver, you’re not only helping the caregiver you’re relieving, but you’re also bringing companionship to someone who might not have the opportunity to see many people. You’re providing the care receiver with a change in their routine and offering a new presence that can bring a sense of excitement and joy to their life.
Debbie volunteers her time with elderly folks and says, “In my experience, a lot of these people don’t have many visitors, they don’t see many people. So, my visits provide another input for the person who is being visited.”
Debbie spends time with an elderly woman named Mary — who turned 100 in 2020! — whom she now considers a dear friend. Debbie stays with Mary a few hours every month so Mary’s daughter and live-in caretaker, Sister Pat, can spend some time outside of the apartment to revitalize or run quick errands.
When you really think about it, being a volunteer for respite care is a way of becoming a dream champion. By giving the primary care person time to themselves, they’re able to focus on pursuing their dreams. And maybe seeing your friendly new face will give the one needing care the spark they need to explore their dreams. AND you get to fulfill your desire to help others and make the world a better place. We’d say that’s a win-win-win!
Debbie emphasized the importance of communication between the primary caregiver and the volunteer because there’s an opportunity to tell the caregiver about resources, social services and other support they might not know about but may find helpful. “It’s very easy for [primary caregivers] to get isolated,” says Debbie. Working together and communicating means providing the best quality of life for the care receiver while easing some of the stress on the caregiver.
Since social distancing, Debbie’s role changed drastically. Due to the pandemic, respite care volunteers can’t actually go into the home — which is unfortunate for all parties involved. “We’re trying to maintain our visitations through phone calls. In my particular case, I call Mary’s caretaker every Friday to talk and see if they needs groceries or anything else I can pick up and drop off.”
Debbie mentions her parish has experienced a large number of requests from elderly who are lonely and homebound due to the pandemic. Those who have already been trained are being asked if they can take on one or more elderly for a weekly phone call just to chat.
There are other ways you can contribute to providing aide to caregivers and care receivers. Even if you can’t go into the home and relieve the caretaker, you can help in small ways like delivering groceries, bringing meals and making phone calls to keep them company. You might also consider sending a handwritten letter to brighten up someone’s day. Bonus points if you’re able to get your friends and family to send letters to the person you volunteer with as well. Imagine the joy on their face when they receive a stream of letters of support and inspiration from your loved ones!
Whatever you decide to do, make sure it is something that is uniquely perfect for them. Debbie says Mary loves Olive Garden’s chicken Parmesan, so she’s bought her dinner and dropped it off a handful of times. It’s small actions like these that make a big difference during this time.
Debbie says on Mary’s birthday, a group of friends came by her apartment and serenaded her social distance style. Debbie and her husband also brought her a small cake and gift card.
“I wait for the time when we can renew our face-to-face visits,” says Debbie. “It is much more than a simple pleasure — it’s an honor for me.”
Debbie says the most fulfilling part about volunteering as a respite caregiver is knowing you’re making someone’s life better. “You’re hoping you’re helping or making things easier for someone. It’s hard to measure, but there is satisfaction in doing that. The gratification is the relationship you form with people.”
Helping another person as a respite care volunteer can be extremely fulfilling, but when you’re providing services for those battling their challenges in abilities and sometimes life-threatening circumstances, it has its difficulties, too. Debbie says, “It’s hard watching them experience failures and become more dependent.” Despite these difficult moments, Debbie goes on to say that the ability to assist or provide insight to what additional services this person may need makes you realize just how important it is for you to be there for them.
Debbie says that if you’re interested in being a respite caregiver, you should be a good listener and know when to go with your gut. She also says, “Be flexible and do what you can. Things evolve, go with the flow. Communication, willingness to visit with the person, patience and understanding are key.”
When asked what advice she has for someone who wanted to become a volunteer, Debbie says, “Do it. I don’t think you’ll regret it. Take a chance. And as a volunteer, you’re not committing for life. More people would be good at it than you think.”
Like Debbie said, you can go at your own pace when it comes to getting involved. Trying something new can feel intimidating, but when you know how much good it can bring to your life and others, it’s worth taking the chance.
If you’re looking to volunteer as a respite caregiver, the easiest way to find a position is heading to the internet and searching for opportunities in your area. You’ll likely find a volunteer coordinator at a parish or church, community resource program and nursing homes or hospitals in your area.
If you want to test and see how rewarding it feels to help others before officially volunteering, do little acts of kindness on your own! Is there an elderly person in your neighborhood? Give them a call! Is there someone in your family with a health condition who could use a visit? Drop them off their favorite dinner and chat through the door. During this time, it’s about safety first, but there are so many ways you can bring a smile to someone’s face without seeing them in person.
Debbie’s selfless act to volunteer as a respite caregiver does so much more than help the primary caregiver — she brings light into people’s lives who may be limited in what they can do. And you can provide your own special light to someone else’s world! However big or small, you can leave a lasting impact on someone’s life for the better. All it takes is making the first step.