The past few months have been a challenging time for all of us. As difficult as COVID-19 has been for the general population, people serving in a caregiving role — whether in the long term for someone living with a disease or injury or short term for someone who has contracted COVID-19 — are likely experiencing additional stress and mental health issues during this time.
Roughly 40 million Americans provide unpaid care to adults with limitations, according to a 2015 study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. These caregivers already face a distinctive set of challenges in their day-to-day lives, and the pandemic has only added new difficulty to their routines, activities and wellbeing, including:
- Social isolation: This has long been a top challenge for those who provide long-term care to a family member. “We tell caregivers to go out, use community resources, get to know others in your situation and create social networks. But they can’t do that right now because they don’t want to risk putting themselves or their family member in danger,” says Meagan Beard, Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Craig Hospital.
- Lack of backup help: The same NAC/AARP study found that 42% of caregivers report not having enough time for themselves. Caregivers can typically hire backup care to give them some free time and help with some of the more confining or physically demanding tasks that are part of their loved one’s routine, but this may not be an option during this pandemic. Caregivers’ concerns about themselves or their loved ones contracting the novel coronavirus may keep them from enlisting this support.
- Increased worry and anxiety: Even under typical circumstances, caregiving can take a significant toll on mental health, with 37% of caregivers reporting emotional difficulty. In a Craig Hospital study of people who had been caring for a family member with quadriplegia for an average of more than seven years, 75% had higher stress levels than the general population. They worry their loved one’s condition will worsen, about their own health, that they will not be able to care for their loved one as they age or if they get sick, about their finances and more.
Lisa Payne, Ph.D., a rehabilitation psychologist at Craig Hospital, offers the following advice on how caregivers can support their own mental health needs while caring for a loved one in this situation.
- Keep in touch with other caregivers who understand your situation. Often, advice from a friend or healthcare professional isn’t as easy to take as the advice from someone living in your situation. Many organizations are currently hosting support groups online, making it easier to make connections under current regulations. The National Alliance for Caregiving provides a comprehensive list of support organizations specific to each type of disease, injury or illness.
- While taking time away may not be an option right now, focus on things you can control, like exercise and meditation. Take a break for these things after the most stressful parts of your caregiving are complete so you can decompress and focus on yourself. Making sure you are eating and sleeping well will also help stave off depression symptoms.
- Focus on the positive. Take time each day to write down three things that are going well. This is simple, and research has shown it to be helpful for improving mood and decreasing stress.
- Above all, flexibility is key. Things seem to change on a daily, even hourly basis, and it’s important to be open to additional change. Breathing deeply, focusing on what you can control and practicing flexibility will go far in helping your mental health in uncertain times.
Caregiving can be one of the most difficult — and yet most rewarding — jobs a person can do. As Tia Walker, author of The Inspired Caregiver, stated, “Caregiving often calls us to lean into love we didn’t know possible.” While this is true, selfcare and wellbeing are critical as well, especially during these extraordinary times.