Providing care for a senior comes with a lot of responsibility. In some cases, caregivers can be the ones preparing meals, doing errands, providing companionship and overall making sure all of a person’s needs are met.
This was already a demanding job. But now, with the addition of COVID-19, it’s gotten more complicated.
William Palmer III takes care of his 92-year-old grandmother, along with the help of around 70 other family members in the area. Once a week, a handful of family members join a phone meeting to decide who is available to help out and make sure that one person doesn’t have to do everything.
Even with all of this help, Palmer said that being a caregiver still comes with a greater degree of responsibility. With the threat of COVID-19, he and his relatives have to be extra careful not to spread it to their loved one.
“I went fishing with a friend, and a few days later, he tested positive for COVID. So, for two weeks, I locked myself in my house, and I couldn’t help the family,” Palmer said.
“When you’re worried that you might bring a disease that might kill your grandmother into the house, all of the sudden…you don’t want to [be a caregiver] anymore, because you don’t want them to die.”
Harder to get a break
For other caregivers, getting a regular break has become more difficult.
When her father was diagnosed with dementia in 2016, April Hardenbol moved in with him to be his full-time caretaker. While it was a demanding task, she had a routine that allowed her time for herself.
Twice a week, an in-home caregiver helped out in the house for around four or five hours. On top of that, her father attended adult daycare at Continuum two or three times a week, where he could participate in a program for a few hours to give Hardenbol a much needed break. During these times, she could go see a movie, get a meal with friends or do errands to decompress.
But COVID-19 has changed this routine completely.
If I was to have been exposed and didn’t know it, and they got sick, it would be my fault.”
During the initial shutdowns, Continuum temporarily closed for nearly two months. The availability of in-home caregivers was now limited. And even if she did have free time, there was nowhere to go–most of her go-to spots for entertainment, like movie theaters and restaurants, were closed.
“I feel like pre-COVID I did a really good job building a support system for him and myself here,” Hardenbol said. “And all that’s gone…All of those things I had in place to kind of help himself and myself cope have just gone away and changed.”
To get some relief, she made the decision to visit family in Massachusetts for six weeks with her father. There, family members helped out, and she could finally get some respite.
When they came back, Continuum had reopened, but Hardenbol wasn’t sure whether it would be safe for him to attend. Even though she would get a break, she worried it would put her father at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
“[Continuum does] a great job. They check temperatures at the door, and they keep them as distant as they can, but I’m really torn,” Hardenbol said. “What if I’m exposing him unnecessarily…I would feel horrible if I, in some way, helped spread it among that population.”
Hardenbol also has concerns about keeping him at home. Without going to senior daycare, taking him out on errands, or seeing his friends, she is the only person he interacts with. She said she still worries that the near isolation affects him negatively.
“It’s really hard to get him to want to do anything but watch TV and sleep,” she said. “Especially in the beginning of COVID and after a month or two…I felt like he was slowly dying and fading before my eyes.”
Masks, social distancing become a barrier
The situation is slightly different for those taking care of people outside of their family. Teri Peterson, a private caregiver for Like a Daughter, takes care of five clients throughout the week. She said that physical touch was a huge part of her job before, since a majority of her clients don’t have family nearby to connect with. Without it, things have changed significantly.
“The personable aspect is very, very different than it was,” she said. “Which is sad for [some of them], because I know they enjoyed that…the only hug they would get from people [was] from me.”
However, she said she understands that wearing a mask and staying six feet apart is a necessary precaution. In many cases, Peterson said she’s the only one with direct contact to her clients, so she has the added responsibility of not spreading the virus.
“I’m out and about. I’m with other clients. I’m with other people,” she said. “Knowing that I’m the only one in that apartment or house…if I was to have been exposed and didn’t know it, and they got sick, it would be my fault.”
Communication has also gotten more important between her and the family members of her clients. Since families have been more separated lately, she has been the only one seeing some clients on a regular basis. So, she keeps the families updated on how their loved ones are doing.
Despite the extra stress, Peterson said this time has been an opportunity for her to take better care of herself.
“I tend to put me last,” she said. “So I think I was a little more motivated to keep myself healthy so I can give what I need to give to everyone.”
Hardenbol also agreed with the importance of taking care of yourself as a caregiver.
“They always say self-care is so important with caregiving,” Hardenbol said. “Well, COVID added a layer of complexity to [that]…it’s a challenge, for sure.”
Bianca Wright is a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she is studying to get a double major in Journalism and Spanish. Aside from being a lifelong writer, she has a passion for photography, traveling, and learning about other cultures. In the past, she’s written several news articles for Noticerio Móvil, a bilingual newspaper at UNR. There, she reported on stories related to topics like DACA and COVID-19 in Spanish and English. With her writing, she aims to find creative and respectful ways to help tell the stories of underrepresented communities in Northern Nevada.