Dear Carol: My husband has vascular dementia due to strokes and uses a wheelchair. I’ve been his sole caregiver for over a decade, but a year ago it was obvious that my body was breaking down from the physical work and emotional exhaustion of 24-hour care. It was his idea that he should move to a local nursing home, so we moved him and he’s done well. We like the staff and have become close to some of them.
Recently, I was invited to go on a 10-day trip with some women friends from church. Even though I’d love to go, the thought of leaving my husband terrifies me. I’ve told him about the trip and when he can remember he tells me that I should go because he’s fine. The trouble is, he forgets what I told him so it’s possible that he won’t remember and will wonder why I’m not there with him. I know that I’ll worry all the while I’m gone. How do I leave without guilt ruining the trip? — GH.
Dear GH: I know from experience how hard it is to leave older adults who have depended on us, and it’s even harder when they can’t remember why we are gone. Yet, caregivers have to take steps to preserve their own mental and physical health — if for no other reason than they want to last long enough to continue being a presence for their loved one.
Knowing that your husband wants you to take this trip should help you along with your plans. I’d start by discussing the details with the nursing home staff. They'll help you plan so that you can feel somewhat comfortable being away. Tell them the days that you’ll be gone and provide the social worker and nurse with contact information for you, as well as the phone number of one of your travel mates for backup.
During my years of caregiving, I took two short trips with a friend. Before leaving, I supplied the nursing home staff with notes from me printed in large black type that they could deliver to my dad daily. You could do this for your husband, only with today’s technology it would be easy to include a candid photo of your smiling face on each little love note. Be sure to sign the notes in your own handwriting.
Line up something for the staff to give him each day that you’ll be gone. It may be tempting to email him photos of you and your friends as you enjoy your trip, but I’d think that through carefully. Doing so occasionally may be fine, but setting a schedule for yourself may keep you too focused on him rather than having a real break.
The point is for you to remind your husband that you love him and will be back soon while depending on the staff to do the same. This should still leave you with enough separation for some peace of mind during your trip.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.