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Practical Tips for Caregivers Concerned About Coronavirus

How to get prepared, reduce a loved one's exposure to the virus

spinner image A woman preparing a meal for her father as he eats a yogurt snack in the background
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Following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the first step for caregivers who are looking after loved ones in the age of coronavirus.

The CDC advises:

  • Contacting health care providers to obtain extra necessary medications and stocking up on over-the-counter drugs.
  • Monitoring needed medical supplies related to a loved one's condition or treatments (oxygen, incontinence, dialysis, wound care) and common supplies such as tissues and cough syrup.
  • Purchasing enough nonperishable food items so you are prepared to stay home for some time. 
  • Those with a loved one in a care facility should monitor the situation, ask about the health of the other residents frequently and know the protocol if there is a coronavirus outbreak.

There are other preparation steps, too, that caregivers can take.

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Backup plans

"This is a good time for families to take stock and revisit contingency plans and to identify family and friends to help with such activities as grocery shopping, [and] stockpiling essential items,” says Jennifer Wolff a professor of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The virus is going to expose and exacerbate the fragile systems that are in place that primarily rely on family and other unpaid caregivers."

Reduce exposure

Those who take care of loved ones in their home or are regular care providers to family members and friends outside the home have real concerns about exposing this vulnerable group to the virus.

“Even if the older adult stays home in a semi-quarantine situation, their caregivers — paid or unpaid — are still out in the community,” says Paula Lester, a geriatric medicine physician at NYU Winthrop Hospital. “The key is to use appropriate precautions."

Stay home

While many restaurants, bars and retail stores are closed, in accordance with local, state and national guidelines, supermarkets are still bustling with people, though some are offering hours just for older people.

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Lester advises that older people skip trips to the market if possible, to avoid exposure. Also, if you are doing shopping or other errands for those who need assistance, don't bring the goods into their home and stick around afterward. “Help them, but help them in a way that still protects them and yourself,” she recommends. “Leave [items] at the front door, or make online orders for them. That kind of help is really useful and safe."

Reschedule wellness appointments

Carla Perissinotto, the associate chief for geriatric clinical programs at the University of California, San Francisco, suggests looking ahead for any regular medical appointments on your loved one's schedule. “Look at what can be canceled that is not essential,” she says, “because health care environments are where the most sick people are right now."

If an appointment is necessary, Perissinotto advises using a telephone or video-based system with the doctor, if available. “If you aren't used to this technology, see if there is someone in your family or in your community that can help you with that.” For residents of assisted living facilities, “one of the things that our group has been doing is identifying a [technology] champion or main point of contact” in-house who can help patients connect to their virtual appointments, she says.

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More on Coronavirus

Keep germs away

Thorough handwashing with soap and water is critical. In addition to washing hands after eating and using the restroom, “everyone who enters the house should wash their hands” immediately, Lester emphasizes.

“There are a lot of unknowns about how long [the virus] can stay on surfaces,” says Perissinotto. She is advising patients to be mindful about wiping down all items that are used frequently — like door handles, remote controls, cellphones and, if you drive, the steering wheel and doorhandles. “It can be overwhelming to think about all the things we touch. So if you have been out in the world and are now back home, just think, What can I clean?"

And for those who tried and failed to get highly sought disinfectant wipes? No worries. “You don't have to get fancy products,” Perissinotto says. “You can make a diluted solution with bleach [and water] to clean countertops.”

Combat boredom

"Social isolation is already a huge problem for many older adults and for family caregivers,” observes David L. Roth, director of the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health. “The current emphasis on social distancing is only going to make these matters worse. It will be important for caregivers to maintain or even increase contact with others (family, friends) by phone, video chat and online communications, et cetera — but not in person. [Caregivers] should also offer their availability to others who may wish to call them.”

“Video chats are better at connection than just a phone call, as actually seeing someone can help” combat isolation and feelings of loneliness, Perissinotto notes.

Be present

For those who care for a loved one at home — often juggling caregiving, work commitments and kids activities — this may be time to hunker down and spend some quality time with your family. “In some ways this is causing us all to slow down and be present with things we do enjoy — completing those craft projects we have started, reconnecting with old friends by phone or video, writing letters, or thanking those in your community or family during this time,” says Perissinotto. “And in a world with all this chatter, sitting in silence for a period may actually be welcomed."

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