Pandemic Caregiving for Elder Family Members
Care of elderly family members during the pandemic has increased the challenges and stress levels for everyone involved. Many different scenarios for caring for elder parents have become apparent over the last many months. In early March, when the lockdown of our country was imminent, many families made the decision to bring their loved one home from a senior care facility. Families knew that elder care facilities would not permit visitors if a lockdown occurred. However, that decision meant learning how to be a caregiver, finding assistance or figuring it all out when the shutdown limited access to services. If the caregiver is also working from home, the extra burden of being employed while caring for a family member soon takes a toll on everyone in the household. In households where children are in school remotely from home the dynamics could become chaotic. Caring for young and elder family members and ourselves is difficult. The most important skill families can possess when they have a job, children and are caring for an elder family member in their home at these times is patience. The situation is guaranteed to become stressful until a daily routine for everyone in the household is in place.
Many elderly parents chose not to leave their homes and continue to live independently. The lockdown forced family members to visit by waving at each other while standing in the front yard or leaving groceries and prepared meals at the door. There was little opportunity for personal contact between the elders and their families for many months. If the families did not have a regular in-home care service, the elder relatives may have been left to care for themselves – adding more stress and another worry. With little to no contact with family members, the elderly parent is isolated and alone. Their health may be affected as depression and feelings of hopelessness become apparent. Summer months provided an opportunity for families to visit outdoors while social distanced. With the approach of colder weather that has ceased yet it is imperative for family members to stay connected. Many elder relatives have cell phones and are familiar with social media, Zoom, Facetime and even Facebook messenger. For those who are not technically savvy it is incumbent upon family to stay connected. After many months of isolation most families have dropped the pretenses of masks and social distancing and have just gone to visit their independent elderly relatives. Now with the virus surging again and families must make decisions to cease in-person visits or ensure visitors are limited to only a few people.
For those families whose parents remained in the senior care facilities during the pandemic the challenges may now be greater. The stress of knowing staff and other residents tested positive for Covid-19 was just the tip of the iceberg. The facility has isolated patients to their room with limited contact and interaction with staff. According to the New York Times, by early September there were over 6900 cases of Coronavirus in nursing homes in the US and the number has grown exponentially since September. The government requires facilities to notify family members if residents or staff test positive and to explain the plan of keeping everyone safe. It is anticipated that the numbers will begin to rise again as the weather turns colder and essential workers in the facilities are exposed to both Covid-19 and the flu.
Since March families have been able to visit their loved ones in nursing facilities through the glass of the front door of the nursing facility. A staff member pushes the patient to the door in a wheelchair, and they try to communicate with family on the other side. Many families have tried to visit through the window of a patient’s room conversing through a window screen. Some facilities can schedule visits through video chats if the technology is widely available in the facility. During the summer, many facilities allowed family to visit for 30 minutes in an outdoor setting where everyone was supervised and wore masks. In addition to no physical interaction, no hugs or holding hands, family has no knowledge of the room condition, if their loved one has toiletries or clothes – more specifically their clothes. Restrictions make it impossible for them to deliver necessary personal items. It is a dilemma.
For the loved one in a nursing home, or in their own home being alone and isolated for months the toll could be devastating. For the family caring for a loved one in their home while having to care for children or work from home there is another level of Covid-fatigue. Depression is the most obvious result but there are many physical and mental impacts from long term isolation of the elderly. The final challenge for caring for elderly parents in a nursing facility during a pandemic is if they pass away. Unless that person is in your home or their home, they will die alone. Nursing home employees assume the role of family. Families direct the nursing home which funeral home to call to receive the body. The nursing home gathers and packs their loved one’s personal belongings, contacts the family who take possession in a location outside the facility. Funeral homes have strict guidelines for holding services during the pandemic. For the family of a loved one who passes away in a nursing home the grief, depression and despair is compounded by the fact that their elderly relative died alone and perhaps did not receive a proper funeral.
It is essential that families stay connected to the facilities, their family and each other. In a recent church bulletin, I read that during the pandemic we have become so consumed with a myriad of distractions and preoccupations that we lose our connection to what is significant and important. We become numb and that affects our human relationships as well. The pandemic has indeed been burdensome to all of us but particularly difficult for elder relatives in need of care. In my book, One Caregiver’s Journey, I remind people that faith, humor and love get us through these difficult times. We must maintain our faith even though these are the times we ask ourselves “where is this God of mercy?” Caregivers must remain vigilant and alert to the changes in our elderly relatives’ mental and physical health and wellbeing in these difficult times. As caregivers, it is also imperative to be aware of what we need in terms of support. So whether you are providing care for an elderly relative in your home, watching vigil over them as they remain in their home, or maintaining daily contact with a nursing facility rest assured that caregiving in a pandemic is a tough job.