The following article ran in the Chicago Tribune, May 19, 2015. To read article on Tribune site, click here.

When Shirley Protis began her weekly visits more than a year ago, Despina Kyriazes told her, “I don’t know where you came from, but all of a sudden I have this angel coming to my house and helping me out.”.

Despina and her husband, Andrew, of Palatine, Ill., look forward to Shirley’s visits each week. As a respite volunteer, Shirley spends time with Andrew, who has dementia and needs round-the-clock supervision, while Despina has the opportunity to step out for a much-needed break.

“Respite is so important because some days are more difficult than others,” Despina said. “Family and friends can’t always help. My husband is getting weaker and it’s harder for me to get out. I don’t know what I’d do without Shirley. She is an angel on earth.”

“I know Andrew enjoys her visits, too,” Despina added. “He doesn’t remember her from week to week, but he enjoys her and is disappointed when she leaves.”

Respite – or short-term temporary relief – for those caring for a family member or other loved one with special needs remains a critical need. Today, more than 67 million individuals in the United States, like Despina, provide care for at least 20 hours per week, sometimes without support, according to Caregiver Action Network.

At first, Despina didn’t know what to do with her new-found free time, she admitted. “I started out with grocery shopping, and then began going to the senior center to play dominoes. Now I attend a prayer group at church and go out for lunch with friends. At first I had a guilty feeling of leaving Andrew, but I’ve come to realize I need to take care of myself, too.”

Shirley underwent training through the REST (Respite Education & Support Tools) program, which delivers education and support to those offering a break for caregivers. Established in 2013, REST offers a solution to what seems like an overwhelming challenge. “We envision having a trained respite volunteer on every block in every town throughout the country,” said Lois Sheaffer, REST program director. “The training we provide equips and prepares individuals to give their very best to caregivers and care recipients.”

Shirley feels well-prepared for her work as a respite volunteer since undergoing the REST training. “REST helped me immensely,” she said. “It especially helped me understand how to work directly with those who have dementia.”

For example, Shirley learned how important it is to engage care recipients during visits, so she involves Andrew – who had been a professional mandolin player and choir director – in music.
“He loves music. It calms him down. It has become a wonderful thing for us to enjoy,” Shirley said. “We sing and have a nice time together.”

Shirley describes her work as a respite volunteer as “heart-filling,” she said. “It is so wonderful to help somebody else, to have a conversation with them and to give them a break, knowing it means so much to them. They keep saying, ‘thank you.’ It fills my heart so much that I could be doing this. I get more out of it than they do.”

To learn about the training programs offered through REST, visit www.restprogram.