BACKGROUND: The concept of respite care has been widely accepted and used throughout most developed countries, although primarily in connection with frail elderly, people with dementia, people with developmental disability or children. This paper aims at exploring older family carers' needs for, access to and use of respite services when caring for people with a mental illness (excluding dementia) in the community. METHOD: Data were collected through: semi-structured interviews with 26 mental health professionals, 21 family carers aged over 55 years and 25 respite service providers; demographic questionnaires; field notes; and local area, state and national documents relating to respite care services. Demographic data were analysed using descriptive statistics. All 72 interviews, field notes and other documents were analysed using content analysis. RESULTS: Current respite services are not adequate to meet the needs of mentally ill patients and older carers. The unique aspects of respite care for older carers of persons with mental illness are poorly understood. CONCLUSION: Bringing these issues to light creates the potential to address the unmet needs of older carers, improve provision of respite services, enhance quality of life of those who can benefit from respite services, and assist mental health professionals to work better with carers.
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