How senior caregivers can best care for themselves during coronavirus

March 18, 2020
How senior caregivers can best care for themselves during coronavirus

As a professional senior caregiver, you’re used to adapting to and navigating difficult or even emergent situations. But now that we’re facing this global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to feel as though you’re swimming in uncharted territory. With the novel coronavirus being of particular concern for your care recipients — seniors age 65+ — and in the wake of a Washington state nursing home’s outbreak, long-term care centers are putting restrictions in place and limiting outside visits

Care workers and caregivers are often the most vulnerable in these moments, according to Janet Kim, communications director at Caring Across Generations, a national initiative to transform the long-term care system. They are often working without benefits like paid vacation or sick time, not to mention training and protection equipment required to protect themselves from catching and spreading the virus, which is sure to make an already stressful situation even worse.

Meanwhile, family caregivers are grappling with guidance to practice social distancing while caring for a senior

“In times like these, these problems are even more acute, and caregivers are often on the front lines of being hit hard with little support to turn to,” Kim says. “Staying home sick to protect those they care for often means a huge sacrifice to their own health and financial security in the best of times.”

Experts agree that these circumstances are a case for senior caregivers to be aware of and to address their own needs. Here’s what they recommend doing to bolster your own well-being right now.

1. Prioritize your physical health

“As we’re working to flatten the curve, it’s so unbelievably important to prioritize one’s own physical health,” says Kim, adding that taking recommended precautions is key. 

“Health officials continue to promote social distancing, self-isolation when necessary and hand-washing as the best strategies for slowing the spread of COVID-19,” says Amy Coupal, CEO of Ontario Caregiver Organization (OCO).

In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) advises health workers to cover their noses and mouths with a flexed elbow or disposable tissue when coughing and sneezing and avoiding close contact with anyone that has a fever and cough.

2. Document and have a backup plan

Coupal recommends taking precautionary measures in case you become ill or need to self-quarantine. 

“Caregivers are anxious about continuity of care,” says Coupal. “Having a plan will help to mitigate these feelings.” 

Create and document your care plan so your backup team knows exactly what needs to be done should you need to step away from work to self-quarantine, she advises. For instance, you’ll want to provide contact information for your senior’s doctors, clinic, pharmacy, etc. and list the names and doses of medications they need.

3. Prioritize physical distance and connection through technology

Outside of work, your social distancing practice might cause you to contend with feelings of isolation. Leveraging technology is also a good way to mitigate this, says Coupal.

For that reason, try to reframe “social distancing” as “physical distancing with increased social connection,” Kim advises. 

“We have to pull together and support and care for another at times like these,” she says. “We’re all in this together, after all.”

You’ll also do well to explore how technology can be used to support someone you care for when you can’t be in the same place at the same time, says Coupal. For ideas, check out the OCO’s tip sheet

4. Step up your self-care 

You want to stay informed, but it’s also normal to feel increasingly overwhelmed by rapidly changing information. If watching, reading or listening to the news is causing anxiety and distress, reduce your exposure and seek updates from trusted sources once or twice a day, advises Coupal. 

“As much as possible, keep a regular routine,” she says. 

That routine should include self-care moves like using a meditation app, doing breathing exercises, taking a walk outdoors (while being sure to maintain physical distance from others) or working out when possible. 

And remember to prioritize connection with friends and loved ones, as well as a mental health care professional. 

“Come up with a call list of friends you can talk to while you’re dealing with all of this for a little relief,” says Kim. “See if there are remote — text or video — therapy resources in your area, such as BetterHelp or TalkSpace.” 

5. Channel frustration into action

This crisis is shedding light on the challenges caregivers experience every day because of inflexible, family-unfriendly work policies and a fragmented, outdated and profit-centered care system, which we are all experiencing the cracks of now, Kim says. 

By joining advocacy groups, you can connect with other caregivers who want to demand better and who could serve as a valuable support network during this tough time. In addition to Caring Across Generations, check out Caregiver Action Network (CAN) and other recommendations from the American Society on Aging.  

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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