Five years ago, a wintertime fall left Leena's father, then in his early 60s, a quadriplegic. Members of a tightknit Indian-American family, Leena and her brother returned to the family's Chicago-area home and for two years helped their mother care for their father.
After the children returned to their own lives on the East and West Coasts, Leena worried about her 67-year-old mother's physical and emotional well-being.
"His care is so demanding, she gets lost in the process," said Leena, who, citing privacy concerns, asked that her full name not be used. "She's just bombarded every day, from the time she wakes up until she goes to bed."
But while trolling Facebook, Leena recently discovered the Caregiver Relief Fund, a year-old charity that awards family caregivers one-time vouchers for professional at-home care, enabling them to regain some energy and briefly focus on their own needs. A few days after filling out a nomination form, Leena received a letter offering her mother four hours of respite.
The nonprofit fund works with five national senior-care organizations, including BrightStar, Senior Helpers and Visiting Angels, to link overworked caregivers to aides who will step in while the caregiver takes a breather and, ideally, starts developing a plan for the future. The Caregiver Relief Fund works with roughly 600 local agencies through its national partnerships.
Headquartered in Chicago and currently available only to caregivers in Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and California, the program will expand to five more states (New York, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland and New Jersey) over the next few months, its co-founder Michael Lindenmayer, 38, said in an interview. So far, the fund has helped hundreds of families, but Mr. Lindenmayer aims to furnish vouchers to one million caregivers over the coming decade.
"The two things that all caregivers are bankrupt in is time and a plan," Mr. Lindenmayer said. "If you have a care plan in place, your mind-set shifts from `I have to do this alone' to `I can do this in a team.' Often people don't plan until they're in crisis mode."
Mr. Lindenmayer acknowledges four hours, whether they're used in one session or spread out over a few weeks, is just a sliver of time. But, he argues, it's enough for caregivers to take stock and, at the very least, catch some down time. With more donations, Mr. Lindenmayer said, the organization could buy more respite hours at cost.
Anyone with a PayPal account can donate online, but to date the bulk of the group's support comes from senior-care agencies. On average, an agency donates four to 10 relief hours per month per ZIP code; the hours are then meted out to applicants.
A caregiver or other nominator fills out an online application, answering questions about daily demands and coping strategies. Vouchers are available only for caregivers who've served in the role for at least 12 months - a "tour of duty," Mr. Lindenmayer calls it - and earn less than $80,000 annually. Reviewers read the application, basing their response on how dire the situation seems to be.
After Leena's application was approved, the fund notified a Chicago-area agency. Leena's mother will now deal directly with the agency, apportioning four hours of home care assistance however she wants.
The relentlessly positive Mr. Lindenmayer conceived of the charity after a weekend visit home to tiny St. Joseph, Mich., where his parents cared for his grandfather. Shocked by their struggle, he canceled his return ticket and became his grandfather's primary caregiver for the next year.
Mr. Lindenmayer believes the real challenge is to convince caregivers that they need help. "I want to teach people how to fish, how to plan, before sending them back into the fire," he said.
Leena's mother's goals are somewhat less ambitious. With her respite time, she wants to listen to soothing music and, perhaps, to get a head massage.
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