Norton Seal Respite caregiver holding hands of elderly patient

Employee & Agent Stories

How to Volunteer as a Respite Caregiver

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.

What Is a Respite Care Volunteer?

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!

What Does a Respite Care Volunteer Do?

A respite care volunteer’s main purpose is to ensure the care receiver is comfortable while their primary caregiver is away. You won’t be responsible for bathing, dressing, dispensing medication or cooking (though you may need to ensure they’re eating and drinking). You can offer minor assistance for things like walking them to the restroom, but for the most part it’s about keeping them company.

“Some nights, we listen to music and fire up a light projector which surrounds her with sounds, colors and patterns. She is very comfortable with silence and is truly a prayerful person. She taught me that sharing presence and time together is more important than any activity.”

She goes on to say, “It’s about being a presence and letting them know you’re there. Try to engage, keep them company and make sure they’re comfortable.”

Another important part about your role is getting a read on what that person wants while spending time with you. Some aide receivers are quiet and simply content watching TV, while others are chatty and enjoy conversation. You’re in their home, so take the time to learn your boundaries and respect their space.

Debbie remembers a special moment she shared with Mary while simply watching a movie together saying, “Her daughter got her a movie from the late 20s or 30s and you could tell as she was watching that she was transported back there. It’s so wonderful to see the joy she gets from simple pleasures.”

Many of us wish we could provide care to those in need, but do not have a career or educational background in the medical field. As a volunteer, you can provide important, life-changing care to someone while only performing duties that you’re qualified for and feel comfortable doing.

What Type of Training Do You Need to Be a Respite Care Volunteer?

Qualifications to volunteer as a respite care worker can vary depending on who you’re volunteering through. You should bank on completing a background check and at least some kind of training. Debbie volunteers through her parish and was required to complete training partly in-person and partly by video. In addition to the initial training, her volunteer group of respite care workers gather for an hour every month to check in and provide advice to newer helpers.

When it comes time to meet with a new client, Debbie says, “There is an intake session to sit down and explain to the caretaker what we do and what we don’t do. We’ll learn the services the client needs and how often they need somebody.”

Whatever your initial training situation, you’ll learn a lot as you go. One of the most important things is communicating with the caregiver and your volunteer coordinator. “At the end of every month we’d report when we visited, how long we were there and what we did. We also note if we observed anything we think they might need or if something seems off. We’ll report back to the respite leadership team if there are any other services the person or caretaker could use.”

Pro Tip
Keep a Journal

Document your experience with each person you care for after each session. That way, you’ll be able to do a thorough review using your notes to better assist them.

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.

How Has Respite Care Volunteering Changed Due to Social Distancing?

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.”

Is Respite Care Volunteering a Good Choice for You?

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.

Where Can I find Places to Volunteer as a Respite Caregiver?

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.

Feeling inspired? There are other ways to support dreams. Check out our guide to giving back for other opportunities to contribute and volunteer in your community!

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Related Topics: Community Involvement , Empathy , Agent and Employee Stories