Taking Time Out for the Rest of Your Life

Chris and Jamie Carrier use their respite time to eat out (above), go to the movies or shop (below). The couple's son, Cory, has spinal muscular atrophy. MDA/1999
by Anita M. Caldwell on June 1, 1999 - 11:25am

Joan and Tim Lafferty receive a respite allotment from the Area Agency for Developmental Disabilities in Nashua, N.H., under the state Division of Health and Human Services. That allotment goes toward baby sitters and short-term respite. Through Medicaid, the couple has a home health aide two nights a week.

"Having two sons with muscular dystrophy, after a while you get tired," Joan Lafferty said. "Emotionally, it's nice to know someone's coming for that little break."

Jamie and Chris Carrier at the movies
Jamie and Chris Carrier shopping

Ardin and Kathy Freestone of Soldotna, Alaska, have been using respite services for about two years. Their respite provider comes in three times a week.

"It's a relief," said Kathy Freestone, who has four children ranging in age from 6 to 14. Justin, 14, and Adam, 9, have Duchenne muscular dystrophy. "Working full time, then caring for the children and the special needs of the boys, it takes up a lot of time."

Freestone said respite offers her and her husband a chance to "be together as a couple." She is an assistant manager for a local convenience store and her husband, a former oil field worker, receives disability income.

The couple uses respite care from Frontier Community Services, under the state Department of Mental Health with Developmental Disabilities. Ardin Freestone said he has been extremely pleased with the agency and the break respite care provides him and his wife.

"If we want to take off and see a show or get something to eat, we can just go and not have to worry about it," he said.

Worrying about whether your child is being properly cared for is among the greatest reasons why parents resist respite care, health professionals say.

"They've become the expert," said Joe Fitzpatrick, a clinical psychologist and MDA support group facilitator in Portland, Maine. "A piece of them doesn't want to give that up and a piece of them doesn't trust."

Fitzpatrick said that a child with a disability often becomes the focus of the family, and parents tend to put themselves second.

"They do feel guilty to go out and have fun," Fitzpatrick said. "'I feel guilty running when my child isn't running anymore,'" he cited, as a common example of how parents feel. "If the parents are burnt out, then they can't present the stable foundation the kids look for."

Fitzpatrick said a child's disability shouldn't stop parents from continuing the parts of their lives that make them a couple and, therefore, a family.

"Kids have enough struggle with thinking that they're different," Fitzpatrick said. "Kids look to [parents] to normalize things as much as possible. It's like the foundation of a house. If the foundation isn't strong, the building crumbles."

Respite care is a way for mom and dad to get back in touch with who they are, Fitzpatrick said. It's a critical piece of survival when there's a chronic illness in the family.

But respite has to be respite.

"Respite is not talking about chronic illness for two hours," he said. "This is a break — mentally and physically."

For most couples, respite has to be scheduled and both parents must take their respite time, both together and separately.

"You have to make it a date," Fitzpatrick said. "Make it that formal. There has to be an extreme commitment to do it. One parent may not feel good about going golfing every Saturday if mom won't go shopping when it's her turn. If one does, someone feels guilty and someone feels furious."

Arlene Marquis of Litchfield, N.H., thinks couples hesitate to use respite care because they're afraid something will happen when they're not home. Guilt becomes a barrier to respite.

"Things still happen, even when you're close by," said Marquis, whose 8-year-old son, Daniel, has spinal muscular atrophy. "We can't always be there," she said. "[Daniel's] a regular kid. We've just accepted it and we don't let that fear keep us from doing things or keep him from doing things."

Marquis and her husband, Paul, a design engineer consultant, have four children plus a daughter who died in 1993 as a result of SMA. Marquis, who home-schools her children, is a strong believer in respite.

"It's so good," she said. "It's so important not to have any of the kids sometimes. But with Daniel, there's so much physical work with his care, it gets draining."

Marquis has been able to rely on her mother, but at 70 years of age, her mother now needs a little extra help. Marquis' eldest son, Adam, 15, helps with such tasks as lifting and toileting Daniel. Marquis also has help from a neighbor she met through MDA who understands the needs of someone in a wheelchair and can lift Daniel on her own.

Besides giving the parents a needed break, health experts say, respite care allows the child to develop relationships with those other than family members. This helps children learn to communicate their needs, a skill they may need to use in managing personal assistants later.

Ellen Berk, a clinical social worker and MDA support group facilitator in Englewood, Colo., said it's important for parents to help children with disabilities develop a strong personality so people can see past their physical disabilities.

"Their greatest fear is that no one will love them," she said. "You want to foster healthy relationships and independence. You can be too dependent on each other and not have separate adult lives."

One way to promote a child's independence and identity is to make sure parents take time for themselves.

"When you're dealing with any chronic illness, no one can be in crisis. You have to have a break from that in order not to get burned out," Berk said.

"Everybody in the family should learn how to lift, or work with a ventilator, but they don't have to do it all the time. That creates a potential crisis," she said. She advised that children with disabilities develop "their own system for maintaining their health. You can't join them in their body, in their illness."

Mintz of the NFCA said respite is a time for renewal.

"I usher in the ritual of respite," Mintz said. "Massage. A bubble bath — yes, for the guys, too," she said. "Candlelight, soft music, a cup of tea and, to be really decadent, a piece of chocolate. But it must be done by candlelight." 

Quest thanks Loews Cineplex, Mikasa stores, Keaton's Arizona Grill, Heritage Highlands Golf & Country Club and Omni Tucson National Golf Resort for assistance with the photos in this article.

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