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The Unexpected 'Gift' of Being a Family Caregiver During Coronavirus

Finding the silver lining in the midst of a pandemic

spinner image A family of five holding a tablet at the dinner table video chatting with family members
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As the dinner hour loomed, my household remained locked in the daily “dirty dishes standoff.” Three meals’ worth of bowls, plates and pans sat in the sink, untouched by me, as a social experiment. Maybe someone would take the initiative? Fat chance. Do I quietly do them or nag yet again? I chose the former, simmering all the way.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, my husband, Bob, and I were finally embracing the new empty-nest outlines of the old us. We had just begun to find our groove when the kids all flooded home. At first it was like an enforced rest, a compressed family summer camp. And then COVID placed both a microscope and a megaphone over every little thing. Small annoyances began to feel like little cracks. Bob chewed too loudly, sighed too heavily, left cupboard doors open. I felt responsible for taking everyone's emotional temperature; caretaking the fear, anxiety and disappointment as a mother and as a daughter to my elderly mom, quarantined one state over in an assisted living facility. Where had our “empty-nest-ness” gone? Would we ever get it back?

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COVID and quarantine have brought lessons and realizations, both poignant and joyful, broad and small. We've tested the boundaries of our patience and emotions. Through it all, even the devastating losses, we have each been reminded of what's truly important.

New connections

Beth Stevens, 59, of Rye, New York, has a strong and loving relationship with her father, who suffers from multiple myeloma. After her mother died, she doubled her visits, worried about his sense of isolation and depression. When the pandemic struck, like so many caregivers, she grappled with how best to keep him safe. Bring him home to live with her or keep him in his nearby senior facility? With her grown children coming and going, Beth made the decision that he should stay put. While it was hard not to physically be with him, it forced more connection to the greater family. “My dad learned how to FaceTime,” Beth says. “And with that new skill, he felt empowered to reach out more to the grandkids, and they, in turn, called him more.”

Making self-care a priority

For adult children who moved home to ride out the pandemic, the challenges have been different. But for Mallory McLoughlin, 31, who suffers from sometimes debilitating autoimmune issues, giving up her apartment in hard-hit Manhattan and moving back in with mom and dad in Tarrytown, New York, was crucial to avoiding the virus. While her social life was immediately curtailed, she found silver linings in quarantine. “I got a chance to spend significant time with my parents as an adult, when it would otherwise have been limited to phone calls and holidays,” says Mallory. “We also had family dinner almost every night, and because we were all cooking, it was a chance for me to eat healthier and be more mindful of how I care for myself."

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Newfound perspective

As CEO of Team Rubicon, a global nonprofit dedicated to disaster relief, former Marine sniper Jake Wood, 37, traveled extensively for work from his Los Angeles home. When his daughter Valija was born, Jake, like many working parents, missed some of the milestones. The pandemic grounded him just as his wife, Indra, 40, who was pregnant with their second daughter, was put on bed rest. “The unintended consequence of COVID was that I got to be around to help Indra during this time and care for our toddler.” Five months into the pregnancy, during a routine appointment, the doctor discovered a heart defect in the unborn baby. Indra and Jake's world kicked into what he calls “mission mode,” as they researched the best doctors for the open-heart surgery that would need to take place right after her birth.

COVID-19 meant no one could visit, and after Lila was born, Indra had to recover alone while Lila had surgery (which was successful). After some terrifying moments in the NICU, Jake and Indra have brought their daughter home. “No one needs to have a scare to put life into perspective,” he says, “but the additional challenges of the pandemic have reminded me that I'm the luckiest guy in the world."

A return to simpler times

When 49-year-old Carolyn Everson of Montclair, New Jersey, lost her father a year ago, her world stopped spinning. She coped by doubling her efforts at work and as super-mom at home. When COVID hit, it was “an immediate reset on life, work and what's important,” says Everson. She quarantined with her husband, twins, stepsons, a pregnant stepdaughter, her newly widowed 79-year-old mother and six dogs. “I felt the enormous responsibility to keep everyone safe and happy,” she says. “No one was getting sick on my watch!”

"COVID forced me to realize how burned out I was, how little I had stopped to grieve and honor the enormity of losing my father,” Carolyn says. “More than anything, quarantine returned us to a simpler time: nightly family dinners, a chance to be there for every aspect of my girl's high school senior year, the joy of walking with a friend, even with a mask on."

Empty nest 2.0

One weekend this fall, all of our four children were gone. There in the sunlit kitchen, pouring our coffee and thumbing through the morning news, was the old “us.” We hadn't gone away — we'd just been hibernating, waking up into each day in a kind of COVID battle mode. That morning, as I gazed at Bob in the peace of a quiet house, I understood that we'd find our empty-nest selves again. There was no hurry. We'd be version 2.0, like so many of us, a little stronger and much more aware of our good fortune as we joyfully embrace the arrival of 2021.

Lee Woodruff is a caregiver, speaker and author. She and her husband, Bob, cofounded the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which assists injured service members and their families. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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