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Why Many Caregivers and Care Recipients Are Feeling the Holiday Blues

AARP report finds nearly half say their mental health has been negatively affected by COVID

man sitting at a dinner table decorated for the holidays looking upset

SolStock/Getty Images

En español | For nearly four decades, 87-year-old Peggy Husch has welcomed her family to her home every Thanksgiving and Christmas for holiday supper. Not this year.

With the very real fear of catching COVID-19 overshadowing all decision-making, the holidays just won't be the same for Husch, for her family and, particularly, for her 57-year-old caregiver daughter, Donna Vasel.

"We're learning as we go,” says Vasel, who lives just a few miles from her mom, in Westfield, New Jersey, and cares for her three to four hours a day and sleeps at her house five nights a week. “I want to make the holidays at least semi-normal for my mom and children. But the question is how to do that without labeling this one the ‘pandemic Thanksgiving’ or the ‘pandemic Christmas.’ “

Vasel has plenty of company in her caregiving struggles during a raging pandemic as the holidays approach, according to “COVID-19 Impact on Family Caregivers’ Holiday Plans,” a new AARP online survey of 1,000 caregivers nationwide.

Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health

44 percent of caregivers  and 46 percent of care recipients feel their mental health has been negatively impacted by the pandemic

Source: AARP Research

The pandemic has had a negative impact on the mental health of 44 percent of the caregivers and nearly half (46 percent) of the people they tend to — including many who are experiencing anxiety, sadness and anger, according to the study.

"What jumped out at us as the oncoming holidays approach is the amount of sadness people have as they think about it,” says Robert Stephen, vice president of health and caregiving at AARP.

What's more, the majority of those surveyed — some 64 percent — will be making changes to their holiday traditions this year, and more than three-quarters (77 percent) say the pandemic is directly affecting their plans.

For caregivers, the difficulty is dealing with not only the sadness of those they look after but also their own sadness, Stephen says. This is where self-care for caregivers becomes so critically important. “Caregivers have to spend time caring for themselves over the holidays,” he stresses.

That can be something as simple as watching a funny movie or unloading on a trusted friend. It also can mean finding other trusted friends or family members to assist with caregiving duties.

"This year the pandemic may be forcing families to adjust traditional holiday gatherings,” says Charlie Young, CEO of Synergy HomeCare, a national in-home-care franchisor. “But we shouldn't neglect watching, listening and learning how our aging loved ones are doing."

Sometimes a family member or friend who isn't regularly seeing the individual can notice something that the regular caregiver has overlooked, Stephen points out.

Peggy Husch with hre four granddaughters and two grandsons

Courtesy Peggy Husch

Peggy Husch with her grandchildren.

The trick this year is balancing family members’ desire and need to help and see their loved ones with the deadly threat of the coronavirus. Three-quarters of those surveyed by AARP (76 percent) believe there is at least some risk of COVID-19 exposure if they visit with others. Concern is high, with about 8 in 10 worried about exposure for themselves or their loved ones.

That said, 6 in 10 (62 percent) plan to gather with family in some fashion, and 8 in 10 caregivers who do not live with the person they tend to (80 percent) will visit them this holiday season. Of course, most plan to take precautions when they visit.

That's certainly the case for Vasel and her extended family members. No one will be eating at Mom's house this Thanksgiving. In the past, up to 19 relatives gathered there, typically congregating around a long dining room table and two card tables.

This year, Vasel and her sister and brother will, instead, take turns visiting their mom's house. Even then, each will visit for only an hour or two. And in order to properly social distance, their mother will be seated, separately, in the living room that is seven steps up from the foyer in which they will be standing. They'll actually be about 20 feet away from each other and wear their masks the whole time they are visiting. If this works, the family will probably try the same thing for Christmas, Vasel says.

"Mom doesn't like not being able to see and hug her grandchildren,” says Vasel, referring to Peggy's six grandkids and one great-grandchild. “But we'll do whatever we have to do to keep Mom safe.”

While there will be no sit-down dinner with a roomful of guests, Vasel says family members will prepare a special meal for her mom, which she will heat up and serve to her.

Billie jean wood waves to the camera with her daughter in law

Courtesy Penny Wood

Billie Jean Wood with daughter-in-law, Penny.

Meanwhile, in Blountville, Tennessee, on Thanksgiving Day, Penny Wood will carry on with her 24/7 caregiving duties for her 91-year-old mother-in-law, Billie Jean Wood. Penny and her husband, Leighton, an orthodontist, recently took Billie Jean out of a nursing home and brought her into their house. Billie Jean suffers from dementia and Alzheimer's disease, so Penny spends a lot of time trying to keep her mentally and physically busy. She loves to fold clothes and look through picture albums, which Penny plans to continue doing with Billie Jean on Thanksgiving Day because a predictable routine is key to her well-being.

"Trying to keep a schedule during the holidays is important not just for the patient but for the caregiver, too,” says Ronna New, D.O., a geriatric specialist at Holston Medical Group in Bristol, Tennessee.

Penny has caregiving experience and says that, even with COVID-19 fears, it's still important to try to include people with Alzheimer's as active participants in holiday celebrations. That's why she hopes to have her mother-in-law help her cook and bake some of the meal.

Because of COVID-19, there also will be a lot of video chatting with relatives who have declined to come for Thanksgiving for fear of passing along the virus to Billie Jean. “This may be her last holiday, or she may have 10 more,” Penny says. “We just don't want her to get sick."

Perhaps the single most important thing for caregivers to remember this holiday season is that gatherings can't be the same as usual — particularly for multigenerational families, says AARP's Stephen.

"If you try to do everything the way you've done it before, you'll be introducing risks to your loved one and to yourself,” Stephen says. “It's not worth it."

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