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May 29, 2020, 4:34 p.m. EDT

This overworked group is burning out from COVID-19: Family caregivers

How to manage and find some relief

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By Alessandra Malito, MarketWatch

Getty Images/iStockphoto
Caregivers work hard to care for their elderly loved ones while also maintain a work-life balance, and COVID-19 only makes that endeavor harder.

Family caregivers have always had stressful jobs, caring for their loved ones while trying to handle their own personal affairs, but COVID-19 has made it even harder.

More than 41 million Americans acted as a caregiver to someone 50 and older, handling their medical or financial needs and assisting them around the house, according to the AARP. But they need help themselves, especially as they try to navigate a new normal during the pandemic.

The situation was already dire. These caregivers — many of whom couldn’t imagine not helping their loved ones — receive little training before taking on the role for someone after hospitalization, according to research from Jo-Ana Chase, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing found . Chase interviewed caregivers of older adults after they had been hospitalized, who said they need more from health care providers in the form of planning and decision-making for patient care. This could look like written instructions and illustrations regarding medical equipment and rehabilitation exercises, for example.

See: This program brings nursing home residents joy in an old-fashioned way

But caregivers have suffered even more turmoil these last few months, as they juggle caring for loved ones as well as themselves during this health and economic crisis. Their concerns include not becoming infected with the coronavirus, not spreading the virus to their loved ones, managing a work-life balance and handling the finances, said Pamela Wilson, a caregiving and health expert. “COVID has made all of this 10 times worse,” she said.

Some family members have also had to decide if they will take their loved ones out of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, many of which went on lockdown in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. These centers house some of the most vulnerable members of society — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at the beginning of this pandemic that the elderly and immunocompromised were most at risk of complications from contracting the virus.

Despite these protections, many centers have suffered outbreaks, which have accounted for large percentages of overall coronavirus-linked deaths across the United States. Families have tried to keep in touch, such as visiting at the window of a loved one’s room or through video-chat, while others have taken their relatives in and may need to soon decide if and when it’s safe for them to return to these facilities, Wilson said.

Also see: Cuomo: ‘Now is not the time’ to bring parents to nursing homes

While transitioning to these new routines, and for however long that is, caregivers should look into relief options, such as employer benefits. Some companies may offer flexible hours, so that caregivers can take care of their loved ones or participate in virtual doctor visits during regular business hours. Others may also provide financial assistance or financial planning guidance during this time. Caregivers can also look for support groups to help them talk through these changes, and know they’re not alone.

They should also take small but meaningful moments for themselves, and not forget to exercise, walk or reach out to others, Wilson said.

One of the most helpful things to do right now is create a plan for the foreseeable future. If the caregiver returns to work, what are the choices for ensuring the loved one is safe and cared for? Are there any other relatives or friends who can help out, physically or financially, during this time? How can families see their loved ones in a safe manner, or find a home health aide who isn’t traveling from home to home, so as not to increase the risk of spreading the virus? “It’s a lot of planning,” Wilson said. “It’s like having a second job and managing a project, but that project is your parents.”

Alessandra Malito is a retirement reporter based in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @malito_ali.

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