What’s Short-Term Care? And How Does It Work?


Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

People tend to think of care at home as reserved for aging adults or those dealing with chronic disease or disabilities. However, there are shorter forms of care available for those who only need it to recover from surgery or other illnesses.

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Short-term care is designed to help your loved one become independent again. Each type of short-term care has its benefits and limitations. Our tips will help you put together the best plan for your loved one’s recovery.

What’s Short-Term Care?

Short-term care by definition refers to a wide range of medical and non-medical assistance to get people back on their feet following an accident, illness, or surgery. Each person will have a different response to a medical event. Some recover quickly, and others may require more assistance to reach independence again.

The success of short-term care depends on a person’s pre-existing medical problems, their previous level of fitness, and whether they have cognitive issues.

Any long-term care planning for a loved one should also focus on maintaining and improving health in the event of a medical crisis. A strong house will weather the storm better than a poorly built one. 

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What’s the Difference Between Long-Term Care and Short-Term Care?

The main difference between long-term care and short-term care is the length of time in each and the goals of care. Your loved one might need short-term care, but in the end, will require long-term care.

The goals of short-term care are the following:

  • Brief (a few days to a couple of months) periods of assistance
  • Recovery
  • Rehabilitation
  • Return to independent functioning

Long-term care is for people who have chronic medical conditions that require ongoing medical care and assistance. In most cases, you can think of long-term care as a place of residence, such as assisted living or a nursing home where people intend to live.

The goals of long-term care are:

  • Prevent further decline
  • Offer a safe environment for continued care.
  • Provide the medical support necessary to keep someone stable

Different Types of Short-Term Care Explained

Short-term care is so varied that most types of care can have their own benefits and limitations. Some of these limitations are due to insurance restrictions, but in some cases, cost becomes the deciding factor on when to change.

For example, if your loved one has been getting private-duty help for a long time, the cost may exceed what you could pay for assisted living. At that point, the long-term care option of assisted living might make more sense. 

Many families may use more than one type of short-term care due to the serious nature of an illness or accident. Insurance criteria and limitations often require other services to augment care and keep someone safe, and therefore, improve.

Below are some short-term care options so you can choose the best short-term solution for your family member.

Skilled nursing rehab

Skilled nursing rehab can be a valuable benefit for those who qualify. It can make the difference between recovery and continued decline.

Medicare, which pays for rehab, requires a minimum of three nights in a hospital. If you or your loved one is not in the hospital for that period of time, you will not qualify. In thinking about this requirement, you may understand that Medicare does not want to pay the high cost of intensive rehab for people who can get the same benefit from less expensive, in-home services like home health.

Insurance determines the length of stay, and if you have a Medicare Advantage plan, there may be co-pays. The other factor that affects the length of stay is progress or lack thereof. If someone is not making sufficient progress, they may be discharged due to insurance requirements.

So, what happens in short-term skilled rehab? The primary focus is to provide different kinds of therapy, along with whatever medical support is necessary to keep someone improving. If mobility is a problem after breaking a hip, the job of this therapy is to get that person to a level of functioning where they can go home. This is what a typical rehab treatment center will offer:

  • Physical, occupational, speech, and respiratory therapies several times a week.
  • 24-hour nursing to do wound care, vitals, blood sugar checks, catheter care, and much more.
  • Aide service 24-hours a day to help patients get dressed, bathe, go to the toilet and walk.
  • Medical support like x-rays and other diagnostic testing, including blood draws.

The goal of skilled nursing rehab is to return someone home where they can continue to recover either on their own or with other supportive services.

Home health

Home health is the bedrock of short term care for individuals who don’t qualify for skilled nursing rehab or who return from rehab and need continued help. Since home health is covered by Medicare, there are strict criteria for participation:

  • A physician must write an order for home health.
  • The patient is considered “homebound” meaning they are not driving or leaving their house on their own. 
  • The patient must have a skilled need, meaning the services of a professionally licensed healthcare provider like a nurse or physical therapist.

Under particular circumstances, it is possible to receive ongoing home health, for example for someone who has debilitating multiple sclerosis. But, for most patients, home health will be time-limited with the option of recertification every 60 days. If your family member is not improving while on home health, they will most likely be discharged due to a lack of progress. 

Home health can do a lot to improve a person’s functioning and get them past an acute illness or injury. The do this by providing the following:

  • Wound care, infusion services, catheter care, insulin injections, and routine checking of vitals.
  • Physical, occupational, speech, and respiratory therapies
  • Aides to assist with bathing and dressing.

Home health aides cannot provide custodial care like housekeeping, cooking, or transportation. For these services you would need to pay for home care caregivers through an agency.

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Home care

Home care, also known as private duty or personal care, is a service that provides private caregivers for families. Each state determines what caregivers are allowed to do. Some caregivers will be Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), and others will not be certified. Home care caregivers, regardless of state mandates, can help families with the following:

  • Help with bathing, dressing and hygiene
  • Shopping and cooking
  • Light housekeeping
  • Transportation
  • Medication reminders (some states allow for dispensing of medications)
  • Companionship
  • Oversight of issues such as wandering

One of the values of home care is flexibility. You can structure a schedule that best fits the needs of your loved one. Costs can vary across the country but you can expect to pay between $25 to $35 an hour. If you have a long-term care insurance policy, that might help defray some of the cost.


Respite care is a broad term used to describe short-term relief for caregivers by providing care for a loved one. Respite can be in the home or outside the home. The idea is to offer some level of care and/or companionship for your family member so you can have a break.

Respite care in assisted living offers short-term residence in a fully furnished room with all of the amenities offered by assisted living. A respite stay in assisted living accomplishes two things: it gives a family caregiver a break and it also offers an introduction to assisted living. In general a respite stay is less than a month.

The other option for respite is adult daycare. Adult daycare is a place where older adults go for activities, meals, and some health services. It can also be short-term or long term depending on family and client caregiving needs. 

Tips for Finding Short-Term Care

To the best of your ability, it is worth investigating any and all potential short-term care options. Realistically, this may not be possible due to a very short time frame, but do the best you can. If you do have time, follow these suggestions to find the best care.

Ask for recommendations

Whether it is home health, home care, or respite, ask for recommendations.

Talk to your loved one’s physician, friends, and anyone else who has personal experience with short-term care. Ask what they liked and didn’t like about their experience. 

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Visit any potential short-term care option

If you are considering skilled nursing rehab, your insurance may dictate your choices. Once you know what those are, visit the locations if at all possible.

There may not be time for a visit, so in that case you might have to rely on the case manager in the hospital to give you guidance about the best place.

Interview staff

Interviewing staff is particularly important with home care and home health care. You will want to choose a company that is responsive, transparent, and has clear lines of communication.

If you are looking for home care, request a face-to-face meeting with a potential caregiver before making a decision. 

Ask about goals

It is perfectly reasonable to ask what the goals of care are. Goals are the guiding principle of short-term care and give you and your loved one something to work towards.

Consider asking about what a reasonable length of time is for recovery and how adjustments will be made to goals. 

Don’t be afraid to change

You are the consumer. If you are unhappy with a home care or home health company you have every right to change.

It might be stressful, but there is no point staying with a company you are unhappy with.

Finding the Right Short-Term Care for You

Short-term care provides the foundation for meaningful and lasting recovery. Sometimes it takes a combination of options to encourage your loved one to return to independent living. Though it can be a bit intimidating at first, be an assertive advocate and you will make the right choices.

If you're looking for more help with short- or long-term care planning, read our guides on skilled nursing facilities and assisted living vs. independent living.


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