(CNN) — Three hospitals. Four rehab centers and nursing homes. And 24/7 private home care in between. That was my widowed mother's life -- and by extension my life -- in 2018 and spilling over into this year.
When a family member has an extended illness, there really aren't enough hours in the day for the necessities: putting in some hours on your job (if you're lucky enough to keep it like I've been), making sure your loved one is cared for adequately, keeping the bills paid, etc.
And time off for a vacation? That's not conceivable when a full night's sleep is a treasured luxury and your expenses outpace your income. Or is it?
'Take care of yourself'
The oaks on South Boundary Avenue in Aiken, South Carolina, provide a natural archway and make even a drive to do errands a pleasant experience.
You hear it a lot when your life becomes engulfed in a loved one's long-term medical crisis: "Be sure to take care of yourself."
It's well-meaning, certainly true, easy to say -- and hard to do.
Vacations are one way we take care of ourselves. They are a chance to recharge and refresh. But when basics such as nutritious eating and adequate rest can be hard to come by because of a time or money squeeze, a traditional vacation is completely out of reach.
Every person's case will vary, but for me, a classic week at the beach or two weeks in Europe is simply not doable.
The situation's been hard. I'm tired. And I'm envious at times.
I look at my friends' Facebook trips and think, "That used to be me." My colleagues at CNN Travel report from far-flung places such as Azerbaijan or Japan.
My travels? I drive between Atlanta, where I work, and my home state of South Carolina where my mother is now in a skilled nursing facility and stable for the moment. It's about 200 miles each way, mostly down the same ol' Interstate 20. Not my idea of a good-times road trip.
Despite these limitations, I have managed to find a way to "travel." This method can work for others who find themselves unable to take a week at the beach or head overseas for whatever reasons that severely limit you in time or money.
The method is simple -- and free! You just have to change the way you think.
Redefining 'travel' and 'vacation'
I had a memorable stroll along the Augusta Canal headgates at Savannah Rapids Park in the spring of 2018.
Because of circumstances I couldn't change, I had to come up with new definitions and time frames for the words "travel" and "vacation." What used to be a week off is now a day off. What used to be a day off is now an hour off.
"Vacation" might mean one glorious day free of both caregiving and work duties. "Travel" might mean a five-mile, 30-minute detour that has nothing to do with my appointed tasks.
And what I've discovered is you can create some precious moments in these little dollops of time and limited place -- moments just as meaningful as you'll have on a big overseas trip.
That minor epiphany came to me one sunny, spring day as I walked along the banks of the Augusta Canal and Savannah River outside of Augusta, Georgia. I had a family member who could sit with my mother all afternoon. My plan was to nap for 90 minutes and then work. But the sun, the sky, the gentle breeze -- they were calling me and I couldn't resist. And I'm so glad I didn't.
My one-hour stroll along the canal and river felt as magical and memorable as rambles I've had along the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London and the St. Lawrence in Quebec City. And it was five miles from my motel and in a place where I once lived. That's when the light bulb started illuminating: This is how I can now "travel."
Find the beauty in your own backyard
A nighttime view of Atlanta, looking toward Midtown, from the Westin hotel. Turn where you live into a "vacation" spot.
I have self-imposed limits on how far I'm willing to be from my mother in the case of an emergency -- roughly 200 miles. That puts points north and west out of Atlanta out of range for now. So where can I go? I'm still left with pretty much all of South Carolina, a decent chunk of Georgia and bits of North Carolina.
I'm fortunate. There's a lot to see within this part of the Southeast that's now my range. And it puts tourism heavyweights such as Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, within striking distance, not to mention lesser-known places such as Congaree National Park, mountain towns and coastal villages.
A situation like this makes you find the beauty of your own backyard, so to speak. You gain a new appreciation for what's always been under your nose when most of the world is suddenly cut off to you.
Some ideas on making this work for you
Take advantage of what's nearby. Lake Strom Thurmond straddles the South Carolina-Georgia line. This shot is from the visitors center on the South Carolina side of the lake.
You may not be caring for an ailing family member. Perhaps you've lost your job and don't have money to spend on flights and room rentals. Perhaps you're working two or three jobs and don't have time to go far.
Despite your personal time, money or geographical limits, here are some other ideas on making the most of the situation and still getting in some quality "travel" time until things change:
-- Parks, parks and more parks: Green spaces are nothing less than a salvation, and many are free. It can be a small space in a town or a big state park, which may have a small parking or entry fee. It's worth it. A chance to stretch your legs, breathe fresh air and soak in some nature is invaluable.
-- Community festivals: A lot of these are also free (or cheap), and it's a great chance to get around some happy people.
-- Play tourist in your own city: Pretend you have friends coming in from out of town. Where would you take them? That might be somewhere you'll want to go for yourself. I'm lucky -- Atlanta is geared toward visitors and filled with places I haven't seen yet even after more than 10 years of living here. But even a smaller city or a rural area should have some diversions you haven't gotten around to seeing.
-- Armchair travel: This one might depend on your mood. But if you think it will lift your spirits to read about places far away, escape that way. For instance, CNN Travel has a wonderful destinations page of more than 50 places -- from Abu Dhabi to Vietnam. Click around and see what interests you. It's a great way to take a journey in your mind when you can't do it with your body.
-- Take photos: These days, most of us have a phone equipped with a camera. Use it! In preparing the photo gallery that's atop this story, I came to realize my life has been more than hospital, rehab and lonely motel rooms in the past year and a half. Perusing your "vacations" is another way to take a mental break, plus you can share them with your loved one who is stuck inside all the time.
-- Use your money and personal connections: If you're fortunate enough to have deep savings, by all means use that money. Hire someone to replace you some of the time if your particular circumstances allow.