As the number of coronavirus cases increases, the role of the family caregiver, and the critical role we play in the lives of our aging parents and family members becomes even more apparent.
The Center Disease Control (CDC) guidance for older adults and people with serious chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes includes:
- Have enough household items and groceries on hand so that you will be prepared to stay at home for a period of time.
- Be sure you have over-the-counter medicines and medical supplies (tissues, etc.) to treat fever and other symptoms. Most people will be able to recover from COVID-19 at home.
- Contact your healthcare provider to ask about obtaining extra necessary medications to have on hand in case there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in your community and you need to stay home for a prolonged period of time.
The guidelines for family caregivers include:
- Know what medications your loved one is taking and see if you can help them have extra on hand.
- Monitor food and other medical supplies (oxygen, incontinence, dialysis, wound care) needed and create a back-up plan.
- Stock up on non-perishable food items to have on hand in your home to minimize trips to stores.
- If you care for a loved one living in a care facility, monitor the situation, ask about the health of the other residents frequently and know the protocol if there is an outbreak.
Some of these actions are the things family caregivers do everyday for their aging parents and relatives – buy groceries and supplies, manage medications – but in the case of this unprecedented health scare, family caregivers will have to go well beyond the basics.
Here are additional skills we must call on in order to support our aging parents in the coming weeks and months.
Advocacy. Advocating for our parents is one of the most important roles we play as caregivers. With the CDC recommending that older adults keep parents stock up on extra medications in the event they are quarantined or practicing social distancing, family caregivers should get involved. Most of us know that insurance companies don’t allow for prescriptions to be filled in advance or in bulk. This is the time when we should check in with our parents and offer to advocate on their behalf to ensure they can comply with the latest and best advice of the experts. Same goes for communicating with doctor’s offices should our parents feel ill or need support. Remember a big smile and a firm stance are a powerful combination when you are negotiating for your parents to receive the best care.
Compassion. Caregiving takes equal part courage and compassion: the courage to do what’s right and the compassion to understand the impact on the people we care for. And in the case of the coronavirus, that compassion should extend to the paid professionals who care for our parents too. First, regarding our parents, recognize that these are scary times – for all of us – but especially for an elderly and/or sick person who may be heavily reliant on others. Many older adults isolated at home are listening to an endless news loop. The headlines are dire and the information is constantly changing. Our parents could be fearful of getting ill, worried about other family members, and concerned about shrinking retirement accounts in the face of a volatile market. Recognize that part of our role is to listen and alleviate stress. Ask your parents about their concerns and listen, and don’t minimize them. Do your best to address what you can and try to limit the amount of “moving facts” you share. That means no rumors, no what ifs and no mights (This might happen). Stick to what is confirmed and what you can control.
And when it comes to the professional who care for our parents, our compassion is critical right now. As senior living facilities limit visitors or go on lock down, it can be agony for family caregivers and their parents. Communication may be limited – especially for seniors who struggle with technology – even phones – due to hearing loss, vision challenges and cognitive decline. It can be scary not knowing what is happening inside the facility with regard to isolation. As family caregivers, we must advocate (see above) for our parents’ care, we can insist on answers around the care and condition of our family members, and, we should practice compassion for the staff at these facilities. This is a global crisis and requires a global perspective meaning it is helpful to remember that everyone is impacted in different ways. Do keep in mind that many care workers are poorly paid, often work without basic benefits, and are leaving their own families behind to care for ours. The “stay at home” if your sick message doesn’t easily apply to hourly workers without paid leave. Our understdanding and compassion will make a difference right now.
Companionship As people age, their social circles start to shrink. Social distancing may already be a way of life. And while that may be good for limiting exposure to the virus, it can be lonely and scary. Each of us will make our own decisions about what is best for our families – and we must make those decisions with our parents input. Our instinct might be to wrap our parents in bubble wrap and do everything in our power to maintain their health. We may insist no one visits or they skip a family gathering. But what do our parents value at this point? Ask them! They may prefer to ride out this crisis with family or friends rather than isolate to avoid a potential risk. (Of course, we all must do our part in heeding the counsel of the experts like the CDC and the World Health Organization and not contribute to the spread of this illness).
Self-care. This time it’s not a cliche – it’s a fact. We cannot care for our family members if we don’t care for ourselves. Wash your hands! Limit your exposure to negative news. Start, continue or increase a stress reduction plan. Download a meditation app, take walks, limit your sugar and alcohol intake. Control what you can control and accept that there is much that is out of our control.
Now more than ever, the role of the family caregiver is critical in supporting the lives and well being of our rapidly aging society. Trust yourself; this is what you’ve been training for.
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