Take a break

Families find relief from caring for parents through expanding respite programs

Home News Tribune Online 02/10/07


Once a week, Yvonne Gottlieb and her mother, Rhona Wilmot, each get a much-needed break when Wilmot heads to St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Old Bridge for an afternoon of socializing with other seniors. For Gottlieb, it's an opportunity to attend to errands and lift some of the strain that comes with caring for her 86-year-old mother at home. For Wilmot, it's a brief return to independence and an activity-filled afternoon.

"This gives my mom her self-esteem back. When she comes home, she's happy and she's relaxed," says Gottlieb, an Old Bridge resident, who juggles work along with her roles as daughter, wife and mother of a 12-year-old son. At Interfaith Network of Care's respite program, Wilmot enjoys lunch, works on some crafts and socializes with the others in the group. "Somehow we can handle the stress of the situation so much better," adds Gottlieb.

Interfaith Network's program is one of a growing number of options to help New Jersey families caring for parents carve out some time for themselves and lighten their load. Respite programs, which are also available for those caring for children and adults with special needs, provide assistance ranging from day-long activities to in-home health aides. Last year, more than 4,200 New Jersey families received some assistance through the Department of Health and Senior Services' Statewide Respite Program.

Once focused on short-term situations, respite programs are becoming more important as the population ages and more adults find themselves taking care of their parents on a long-term basis. The state's program has increasingly sought to offer flexible alternatives to address the growing need, said Pat Polansky, assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Division of Aging and Community Services.

More choices

The state offers several options, including the statewide respite program administered through the counties and an Alzheimer's adult day services program. More recently, the state began piloting a program that provides cash directly to families to allow them to choose the best combination of assistance, Polansky said.

"This consumer-directed option allows our families, our caregivers and our citizens to be comfortable in their communities," Polansky said. "We are learning that we need to be more flexible as much as we can in our provision of options."

At the Interfaith Network program, conducted on Tuesdays and Fridays at St. Thomas, participants get a mix of socializing and activities. On one recent afternoon, the group of about 20 painted wooden hearts in shades of pink and red for Valentine's Day. Then they talked about their favorite oldies tunes — Sinatra hits topped the list — and spread out their bingo cards for one of the more popular activities of the day.

Wilmot helped one of her friends paint his Valentine. She also led the group in prayers. The program is a worthwhile way to spend some of her time, she said. "I don't think my time is wasted," she said. "I help the other people."

The Middlesex County Department on Aging contracts with about 14 agencies to provide different forms of respite services.

"As the senior population ages, the need for these kinds of services is only going to continue to grow, particularly when you have elderly spouses trying to care for a loved one at home or if you have a younger family member who is working, trying to take care of kids at home," said Margaret Chester, executive director for the Middlesex County Department on Aging.

Families seeking assistance can contact the department and talk with a counselor to determine what program would be most helpful. Options might include social adult day care, home health care, inpatient services, or a combination, Chester said.

To qualify under the state's program, the person receiving the care must be 65 or over (or 18 to 64 if disabled), have monthly income of $1,809 or less and no more than $40,000 in assets. In addition, Middlesex County offers an option that extends help to individuals with as much as $50,000 in assets, Chester said. There is an overall annual cap of $3,000 for assistance for an individual.

Families also can seek out temporary programs to help out when they plan vacations or face last-minute crunches.

Peace of mind

Respite care is gaining attention on a national level. In December, the "Lifespan Respite Care Act," written by Rep. Michael Ferguson, R-7th Dist., was signed into law. The legislation provides $289 million over five years for states to develop or expand respite services, train program workers and provide outreach to inform caregivers of the services that are available.

"Some states have very comprehensive respite care services. Others do not," said Ferguson. The funding "leverages the great experience these other organizations bring to the table and helps states think it through," he added.

Ferguson saw the challenges facing caregivers first hand when his father took care of his mother during her six-year fight with cancer. "Fortunately for him, he had me and my siblings and other family members as his support structure," he said. "There are many primary caregivers who aren't as fortunate as my family was."

Barbara Bergman has pieced together a patchwork of programs for her 93-year-old father, Joe Schilansky, to help her balance taking care of him and watching her new grandson. The family went through a series of in-home aides in 2005 after Schilansky moved in before deciding to take over themselves. About a year ago, they found the Interfaith program, which charges $10 a day.

"They make these individuals feel so valued and truly loved and respected and appreciated," Bergman said. "All those wonderful qualities that sometimes as caregivers, with all these demands on our lives, that piece sometimes is forgotten."

In addition to volunteer programs like Interfaith, some assisted-living and health facilities offer their own respite and day center options. Schilansky spends four days a week at a program run by Buckingham Place in South Brunswick.

Buckingham Place's adult day center program attracts about 45 people each day, said Hilary Murray, director of marketing and outreach. The program, which includes meals, crafts, discussion groups and other activities, averages $80 to $85 a day including transportation and meals. Some costs may be covered by Medicaid, Veterans benefits or long-term care insurance.

The growing number of programs meet a crucial need for both caregivers and their loved ones, said Connie Pfeil, who coordinates Interfaith's respite program.

"The wear and tear on a caregiver is unbelievable," said Pfeil, an East Brunswick resident, who prepares the program's daily meal and shuttles some of the participants to and from their homes. "This gives them time to take a breath."

Photos by ALEXANDRA PAIS/Staff photographer

Connie Pfeil, a respite coordinator, helps some seniors with their art projects.

Sue Dowling, center cheers on Joan Pomarici, left, after winning bingo, as Pauline Shubar look on at the Interfaith Network of Care's Daycare program in Old Bridge.

On the Web

Statewide Respite Care Program (through NJEASE): (877) 222-3737; http://www.state.nj.us/health/senior/respite.shtml

Caregiver NJ Resource Web site: http://www.state.nj.us/caregivernj/index.shtml

Middlesex County Department on Aging: (732) 745-3295; http://co.middlesex.nj.us/aging/index.asp