Giving Caregivers a Break—And Getting a Lot in Return

A few times each week, Stephanie and Tad get together for a couple of hours. They both enjoy working on jigsaw puzzles and recently finished a 2,000-piece puzzle that took them nearly four months to complete. They’re also both Wheel of Fortune fans and watch the show together whenever they can. They talk about the past and places they’ve visited. All in all, their conversations are about the same things you talk about with your friends, yet their relationship is a bit unique: Tad is a 93-year-old father who lives with his daughter and Stephanie is a “respite” volunteer with DARTS.

“I took care of my own father while he had cancer. After he passed on, my mother had a stroke and needed 24/7 care,” Stephanie explains. “So I had a very first-hand experience of how much caregivers really do need a break.” Sharing her time with a family caring for a parent turned out to be a perfect volunteer fit. Stephanie helps Marie, who is Tad’s daughter, by coming to her home a few hours each week to spend time with Tad and give Marie a little time away. 

With her children grown and her parents gone, Stephanie found herself coming home after work to an empty house and watching TV most nights after dinner. “I felt I was wasting my life away, sitting at home by myself when I could be sharing my time with someone else,” she says. “Taking care of my loved ones in their senior years gave me the opportunity to hear so many of their great stories—and now I get to be part of more of these stories in sharing time with Tad.”

Respite volunteers fill an important role for families who may be struggling to balance the care of aging parents with the demands of raising a young family, running a home, pursuing careers, and maintaining activities. Stephanie knows from experience how difficult it can be for the caregiver, who wants very much to keep senior family members at home as long as possible, yet may struggle with the many demands it entails. “You can start to feel guilty about when you have to leave the house, or wonder, ‘How long can I do this?’” she comments. “It’s very important for caregivers and families to have breaks, and that’s what I do as a respite volunteer.” Stephanie also points out that a few hours a week apart is important also for the elder family member. “I remember my mom needed a break from me sometimes just as much as I needed a break from her!” she laughs. “Seniors need to have exposure to other people, environments, and social situations to stay sharp and feel like they have a reason for living. And while I’m with Tad, Marie can go to her kids’ sporting events or take care of errands. It helps the whole family.”

Stephanie credits DARTS for making an ideal volunteer match between her, Tad, and his family. “I felt right at home and he did too,” she says of their first few meetings. “The family has made it very easy for me to blend right in.”

Being a respite volunteer is something that Stephanie looks forward to each week. “I get excited to go visit Tad,” she describes. “It’s helped my mood. After losing my mom, it was hard to be on my own, sitting there by myself at night. This is something I can do to keep my spirits up and my health. It helps me emotionally, physically—everything. I feel that I get so much more out of it than I give.”

Stephanie points out that seniors can be “forgotten about” or come to believe people aren’t as interested in them anymore as they age. “I think we have so much to learn from our seniors,” Stephanie says. “From all that they’ve seen and been through, to just asking them how they used to do things when they growing up.” She and Tad talk about everything from electricity to traveling to cell phones.

Stephanie believes that “if you can help, you do.” Her philosophy is, “We’re put on this earth to be the best person we can be and share the gifts we’ve been given with others.” Being a DARTS volunteer is an experience she encourages others looking for a way to “give back” to try. “This is something that I can give—at no monetary cost—and make a difference by helping a daughter keep her aging father at home with her for as long as possible. The more I give now, maybe the more likely that when I get to be that age someone will be there for me!” she smiles.

“This has ended up being beyond wonderful,” she reflects. “Time really flies when I’m there—we start with a puzzle and before we know it, it’s Wheel of Fortune time!” she laughs. “The more you give, the more you get. It’s a blessing to be able to do this.”

ByJen Larson Roesler, DARTS volunteer

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