By Kara Davis
January 14, 2021
Three in four family caregivers have become overwhelmed caring for senior loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a December survey by A Place for Mom. The survey, which re!ects the experiences of 1,000 adult children, also found that two in three caregivers feel they’ve sacri"ced their own physical or mental health to care for a senior.
Kim Barnett, a clinical social worker and the co-founder of the online forum AgingCare, says the struggle to "nd balance is common in the caregiving community — but that the pandemic has escalated it.
“What has made caregiving more difficult during COVID-19 is the lack of respite opportunities,” Barnett says. “Caregivers are more hesitant to invite outsiders into the home — not just professional caregivers, but also family members. This has increased the burden on the primary caregiver. Now that we’re approaching a year since family caregivers have become the primary source of support for their aging loved ones, we’re hearing from caregivers who are beyond burnout.”
While the emergence of COVID-19 vaccines brings hope for seniors and change, there are methods caregivers can use now to support seniors and protect their mental health, too.
How COVID-19 affects the mental health of caregivers
Like A Place for Mom’s family caregiver survey, medical research suggests that coronavirus has affected caregivers more deeply than many other groups. An August 2020 study of 4,784 caregivers and non-caregivers found that caregivers were 11% more likely to report psychological distress. The study, published in the Journals of Gerontology, revealed similar repercussions for physical health: Caregivers were 10% more likely to report headaches and 9% more likely to ex- perience fatigue.
Coping strategies for caregivers
Though caregiver burnout is increasingly common, there are ways to prevent or lessen it. Alice Bonner, the director of strategic partnerships for the Community Aging in Place – Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE) program at John Hopkins School of Nursing shared her insights for protecting and improving caregiver mental health throughout the pandemic.
1. Recognize and appreciate the positive moments.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to focus on newfound challenges and intensifed responsibilities. While caregivers shouldn’t ignore these concerns, acknowledging the positive can be surprisingly powerful, says Bonner.
“People need to hear positive statements from one another. Say things like, ‘This isn’t going to last forever,’ ‘I want to bring joy to others,’ and ‘I’m choosing grace in this moment,’” says Bonner, who has worked as a geriatric nurse practitioner for more than 30 years. “These sound like really simple phrases — but the idea is that people learn from them, keep them handy, and remember to repeat them.” These comforting statements can help to set an intention for a caregiver’s day.
Caregivers and older adults can also make a difference by recognizing and affrming others. Through her work in hospitals and senior communities, Bonner has seen many “appreciation boards.” These are white boards where residents and staff write encouraging messages and compliments. Simple rituals like this can promote both positivity and connection.
2. Find safe ways to connect with your senior loved one.
“Efforts to isolate seniors led to widespread concerns about loneliness and increased physical and cognitive decline,” says Barnett. “Whether at home or in long-term care settings, the isolation of seniors due to coronavirus precautionary measures has been the primary caregiver concern.”
For caregivers who haven’t been able to see their senior loved one as regularly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, this shift in communication can cause worry and sadness. In response to this, Bonner recommends that caregivers focus on what options and tools are available — not what avenues of communication have been closed off.
“I tried to use the iPhone that the community staff had to communicate with my mother, but she couldn’t manage it,” says Bonner. “But there are older adults who do very well with iPhones, and that’s something that’s almost always available.”
“Ask, ‘What’s the person able to do? What are their capabilities?’ Most people can use a simple laptop or keyboard. Another option is writing very simple, short letters. Letters are something you can send every day.”
3. Become more comfortable saying “no.”
Caregivers are known for taking on many responsibilities and having long to-do lists. While many of these tasks are necessary, Bonner says caregivers should practice saying “no” when they can and work to alleviate guilt. Bonner suggests caregivers live by the following mantra: “Today, this is what I can do.” A caregiver’s capacity often varies day by day.
4. Stay in the moment and practice mindfulness.
Taking responsibilities day-by-day relates to another key practice for caregivers: mindfulness. Oftentimes, caregivers’ busy schedules can lead them to focus on the future, rather than the present. Bonner urges caregivers to resist this natural impulse. “We’re all very used to multitasking now. That can really increase our stress and makes us feel like we’re doing 10 different things at once,” she says. “Sometimes you just have to stop multitasking, be in the moment, and take the time to be present with someone.”
5. Know when to ask for help.
A caregiving lifestyle revolves around helping others, but caregivers often don’t seek out the same support for themselves. In fact, this is one of the main reasons Barnett and her husband created AgingCare.
“We created the forum with the purpose of allowing caregivers to connect with each other to learn, to share experiences, and to provide one another with ongoing support,” she says. “Caregivers vent their emotions and get advice from those who truly understand.”
In addition to online resources and support groups, Bonner encourages caregivers to confide in colleagues, close friends, and other family members. Through her work in hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bonner has also seen many “check-in boards,” where people can rate their level of stress.
“People can check off a green box that says, ‘I’m able to help today, I feel good,’ a yellow box that says, ‘I’m able to help today, but I have some stress,’ an orange box that says, ‘I’m struggling today,’ or a red box that says, ‘I need help today.’ If you see someone checked off the red box, you’re going to go and help that person.”
While this represents a specifc example, caregivers can facilitate a similar “check-in” in whatever way works for them. Notably, Bonner says the focus should be on creating an atmosphere where asking for help is easy and comfortable.
The “check-in board” analogy also offers a good point about when it’s time to offer support to a caregiver or other loved one. While many people wait until someone is in the red box — or at their maximum stress level — to provide counsel, Bonner believes that reaching out when someone is showing initial signs of stress, or in the yellow or orange box, can prevent burnout from worsening.
6. Use the buddy system.
Often, caregivers don’t realize they’re becoming burnt out until exhaustion sets in all at once. To avoid this, Bonner suggests using the “buddy system,” or finding a close friend or family member who may recognize signs of stress more easily. This person can be a partner in the caregiver’s self-care journey, alerting them when it may be time to decompress.
7. Rely on trusted, accurate resources.
As the pandemic evolves and changes, it can be stressful to keep up with news about senior living visitation guidelines, local infection rates, vaccine information, and more. Having a few trusted sources — such as A Place for Mom’s COVID-19 and seniors page, the Centers for Disease Control, and state public health departments — can lessen this burden and ensure you know the latest recommendations for protecting yourself and your senior loved one.
-Republished from A Place For Mom, 2/2/21