COVID-fueled caregiver crisis an ‘emergency room moment’

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By Correne Martin

 

Frail elderly and their caregivers are in crisis, and they have five months of cold weather ahead of them that are not predicted to be coronavirus-free.

“Unfortunately, this is what our new normal looks like,” said Heather Moore, area dementia outreach specialist with the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin (ADAW). 

In spite of the discouraging COVID-19 limitations, she and her colleagues encourage people to tap into local resources and strategies that can help repress the isolation they are experiencing and keep difficult circumstances from becoming full-fledged emergencies. 

Moore shared that professionals in the fields of aging, disability, Alzheimer’s and dementia are seeing caregiver stress and burnout, the need for respite services, few openings for nursing home residency, overwhelmed nursing home staff, etc. 

“I’m seeing absolute crisis situations of hospitalization now, where their loved one has fallen and the caregiver’s at the max,” pointed out Gina Laack, dementia care specialist through the Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) of Eagle Country. 

She and Moore agreed, sadly, this is because people’s health may have deteriorated since the onset of the pandemic, but caregivers, who are at their breaking point, are afraid to allow assistance into the home and risk potential COVID-19 exposure. They are also worried about the idea of nursing home placement fearing the gut-wrenching possibility that they wouldn’t be able to visit their loved one in that environment. Or, they may have tried to find placement but can’t since a majority of facilities aren’t taking new residents at this time.

Laack said nursing homes and assisted living facilities may be struggling with lower than usual staffing, as workers are quarantining due to COVID-19 exposures. She said many places are also uneasy about accepting new patients, as they don’t want to jeopardize the healthy community they’ve been able to maintain. 

“There’s only one in the state that’s taking COVID-positives right now,” Laack stated.

Moore added that crisis is not only hitting families caring for loved ones in their homes but also those who have parents or grandparents in nursing homes already. 

“They are feeling guilty, depressed, hopeless,” she said. “Those window visits can only go so far when you can’t hug her, you can’t hold her hand or you used to feed her meals every day. This whole thing goes back to isolation.”

“It’s broken heart syndrome,” Laack continued.

Roby Fuller, director of the ADRC-Prairie du Chien office, said some of this was alleviated in the summer when outdoor visits were more accepted. 

“Now, Crawford County isn’t allowing any visits since public health recommended scaling back to phase 1 (of its reopening) plan),” Fuller explained. “I believe visitors are only allowed in hospice situations.”

The three women each praised area nursing home staff, feeling those professionals have done as best of a job as they could throughout this pandemic, with community drive-bys, getting residents to the dining room, albeit social distancing.

As the experts pondered how family members, friends, acquaintances and others can help better the lives of people facing these conditions, they emphasized that people should reach out to them for a direction, coping techniques for reducing isolation, or simply a listening ear.

“There are a lot of virtual support options,” Laack said. “Any day, there’s probably about 10 different support groups throughout our state (for caregivers and even Memory Cafés for those living with Alzheimer’s or dementia). Some of them are trying to offer activities like arts and music online.”

“We’ve both been doing caregiver consultations,” Moore said of herself and Laack. “We can do porch visits, as long as they wish. We’re happy to social distance. Sometimes they might need to just see us in person.”

She reiterated that she understands how important that face-to-face contact is for people; yet, if virtual is the only option for some services currently, she urges people to give it a whirl.

“It could be a year from now before we can get in-person support groups going again,” she quipped. “You will get something out of it.”

Moore also supports giving into the reality that “we are all social beings and socialization is key for brain health.” She suggests still going and doing things, in a safe manner if possible.

Fuller went on to remind anyone interested about a few programs the ADRC and ADAW will provide the public in November. 

First, a caregiver coupon book will be offered to recognize caregivers throughout area communities. Contact her office at 326-0235.

Second, a Virtual Caregiver Boot Camp will be presented every Monday from 1 to 3 p.m. across the four counties in the ADRC of Eagle Country, including Crawford. 

This starts Nov. 2 and runs through Nov. 30, and touches on a different topic each week. All are welcome to join in this free support journey, specifically targeted for families coping with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. To register for all or a few sessions, contact the ADRC-Prairie du Chien office at the above number.

In a recent Rosalynn Carter Institute For Caregiving newsletter, Executive Director Jennifer Olsen acknowledged this crisis, with startling statistics.

From more than 400 caregivers across 46 states, the vast majority—83 percent—reported increased stress related to caregiving since the pandemic’s start. They also reported a decrease in help and support, concerns about financial instability and debilitating impact on their personal mental and physical health. 

She wrote: “This is our emergency room moment. If we do not begin to seriously address the needs of caregivers and provide the necessary supports, this indispensable, largely invisible component of our health care system is in danger of collapse.”

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