“My television isn’t working. I feel cut off from the world.” My heart sank when my 91-year-old mother said those words last week. She lives alone and avidly follows the news. Sure, a broken TV seems like a paltry problem given the magnitude of a global pandemic. But the TV is a vital connection to the outside world at a time when older adults, especially frail seniors, are increasingly isolated.
There are many things my siblings and I are now grappling with, from how to get Mom groceries to making sure she stays virus free. But at the top of our list, we’re struggling with one big question:
How do we stay connected when so many of our traditional channels seem to be broken?
My mother is luckier than most. She lives in a retirement community and has access to a variety of supports including transportation, wellness checks and social activities. Under normal circumstances, my siblings and I visit regularly and help with errands, repairs, home projects and other things on her to-do list. Most importantly, we spend time together.
But nothing right now is normal. In the era of COVID-19, spending time together poses risks. While my mom doesn’t complain, I can hear it in her voice. She feels lonely. My siblings and I can’t visit and make sure Mom’s okay. Instead, we are trying to support my mother in creative and virtual ways. For family caregivers like us, staying connected is crucial to combatting the fear and uncertainty that is our daily struggle.
Things are tough for so many families these days. But some people are caring for both parents and dependent children. These are the so-called “sandwich” generation caregivers. Since they’re getting pressed from all sides, their situation is more aptly described as a panini. One woman I spoke to is shouldering the trifecta: Zoom-schooling her two young children, working full-time at home, while also caring for two aging parents. “I’m barely holding me together,” she said. “It’s a perfect shit storm.”
As working parents know, there’s no silver bullet, even in normal times. In this moment, the key is to piece together a toolkit that can make things less complicated. In my role as VP of Senior Care at Care.com, I oversee an employer-supported eldercare program. We provide expert guidance, information and resources to caregiving employees. We are hearing first-hand about the numerous and heartbreaking challenges family caregivers are now facing.
For those with loved ones in hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living communities, visits may no longer be an option. My father, who had dementia for over 10 years, lived in a nursing home which just reported its first case of COVID-19. If Dad were still alive, Mom’s daily visits—his lifeline--would be over. For many, that devastating cut-off is now a reality.
Some family caregivers are so alarmed by the surge of coronavirus cases in elder-care facilities, they are bringing loved ones home. That may pose a different set of risks and challenges. Most experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do not recommend moving a family member out of a nursing home right now. Still, there are no easy answers and some families feel loved ones may be safer at home. Before making a move, insure you and your family can provide the necessary level of care and minimize the risk of infection.
But if your mother is in a nursing home or assisted living community, what can you do other than wait it out and worry? Ask what the quarantine policy is in the facility. Does staff have access to personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of infection? Where will your mother get treated if she contracts the virus and will she be able to re-enter once she recovers? Find out how best you can communicate with staff to get updates so you’re not in the dark.
Meanwhile, family caregivers and seniors are losing access to the traditional network of long-term care supports, as some home care agencies modify services and adult day care centers close.
The population most vulnerable to this pandemic, older adults, is increasingly at risk from another daunting foe: isolation. Think isolation is just sad? Researchers found that loneliness is as life-threatening as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. How can unpaid family caregivers, who shoulder the lion’s share of long-term care under “normal” circumstances, provide meaningful emotional support even when they must remain physically apart?
Video-calling services and connected devices that allow face-to-face communication can make a big difference, helping older adults feel less alone. My mother, who describes herself as “technologically hopeless,” is learning to use an iPad—with support from family and friends. Email, phone calls, even snail mail are ways to keep in touch and take some of the distance out of “social distancing.”
Where do you turn for help amidst the onslaught of information?
Reach out to established organizations that are offering resources for family caregivers. Two such groups are The National Alliance for Caregiving and Caring Across Generations. They list Tips for Sandwich Generation Caregivers in the Era of COVID-19. Caregiving Action Network has a free caregiver help desk, staffed by experts. The Alzheimer's Association provides strategies for dementia caregivers. The John A. Hartford Foundation has an updated list of resources for older adults, family caregivers and health care providers. And Care.com has assembled a library of practical Covid-19 resources for families and caregivers to use during the crisis.
If you are in the workforce, check to see if your employer offers benefits for caregiving employees. Some employers are offering support to their caregiving employees in response to the growing need, such as extended backup care for children and seniors.
And if you’re a frontline healthcare worker, Care.com is providing free premium memberships. In some states—including Rhode Island, Colorado and Utah—governments are announcing partnerships to help get frontline workers access to care benefits.
The number of people who are homebound or quarantined is only increasing. Fortunately, a resurgence of informal community support is blossoming. Just today, I received an email from a neighbor. She is organizing help with dog-walking, shopping and other tasks for those in need. When my mother had to cancel her cleaning lady, a neighbor dropped off a light vacuum along with easy-to-follow instructions. Neighbors are also sharing crucial information. That is increasing the likelihood of finding much needed items. Now you can crowd-source the hunt for Lysol wipes and toilet paper! Nextdoor, a neighborhood social networking app, recently reported that engagement has doubled. And Care.com is offering 30 days of free premium access for those who need senior care.
Focus On What Matters Most
In my book, My Parent's Keeper: The Guilt, Grief, Guesswork and Unexpected Gifts of Caregiving, I write about the shifting dynamic between the burdens and benefits of caregiving. Even during a global pandemic, there are opportunities for unexpected gifts, if we allow ourselves to take them in.
While my list of worries abounds, this is also a period of slowing down. Surprisingly, I find that I am better able to listen and connect. I call my mother, in-laws and aging family members more frequently. I have a greater reservoir of empathy and patience and express love more openly. The news cycle, which offers a daily dose of despair, is also a stark reminder of what matters most.
As the pandemic spreads across the globe, many of us are growing painfully aware of a harsh truth: our time is precious and finite. We may be physically distancing, but we can hold our loved one close. We do our best to combat the threat of contagion, yet we can also embrace the power of connection.
During this difficult time, that may be what we need most of all.