En español | The good news: COVID-19 was not at issue when then-64-year-old Ginny Valenze had to quickly and independently assemble caregiving help for herself after suffering a very serious medical emergency while out of town.
The bad news: It still required an array of often-confusing calls and wide outreach to friends and neighbors that left her feeling utterly vulnerable and, as she said, “terrified.” Never mind that her own profession as a patient advocate for pharmaceutical companies stretched for more than 20 years.
"You don't ever think this is going to happen to you — until it does,” says Valenze, now 70, who never married and lives on her own in Whippany, New Jersey. She was the caregiver for her late father, and assisted with the care of her mom and one sister, who both died when she was a teen, but ironically, she says, she didn't have her own self-care plan in place. Another sister lives much too far away to be of daily assistance. “Your world can turn upside down in an instant, and the older you get, the more likely it will."
Her best advice: Make a plan. This is particularly critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here's what five caregiving experts suggest an older person who gets the coronavirus — but has no spouse or close family to assist with caregiving arrangements — can do. Their tips and advice hold up in a non-COVID-19 emergency, too.
• Call your doctor first. If you have a physician and suspect you are sick with COVID-19, your very first call must be to your doctor, says Amy Goyer, AARP's family and caregiving expert. After your appointment — and presuming you are not hospitalized — it is your doctor's office that can likely assist with home health care, if needed. Keep in mind, says Goyer, if the home health care is ordered from your doctor, your insurance company is more likely to cover the costs.
• Rely on the hospital social worker. If you are hospitalized for COVID-19, the social worker at the hospital should be working on your discharge plan long before you leave, Goyer says. That way, you're not scrambling to make often complex discharge arrangements for caregiving on the day you are released. Sometimes, this will require your requesting or reminding the social worker to do that, particularly if you have no family member advocate.
• Check with the VA if you're a vet. If you're a veteran with COVID-19, you may be eligible for home health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs, Goyer says. But you first must be enrolled in the VA health care system, even if you've never previously used it. The website is caregiver.va.gov, and the toll-free number is 855-260-3274. There is also a crisis care phone number for veterans with mental health issues: 877-222-8387.
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• Call your state's agency on aging. One good way to find caregiving assistance is to call your state office on aging, says Pamela Wilson, a caregiving expert and advocate. You can find the contact information online at the Community Resource Finder.
• Seek information from your state or local medical society. If you don't have a doctor for assistance in seeking a caregiver referral, check with your state or local medical society, suggests Michael Trahos, a specialist in geriatric medicine in Alexandria, Virginia. You can find the contact information by searching online for the name of your state with the words “medical society."
• Contact a community senior center. Senior communities can often assist with the meal delivery portion of caregiving, says John Schall, CEO of the Caregiver Action Network, a nonprofit organization that specializes in informing needy adults on caregiving options. To find your local senior center, go to eldercare.acl.gov and enter your zip code.
• Check with caregiver assistance organizations. Socialization is a critical part of home care. AARP Community Connections can put you in contact with a group that can help with socialization outreach, Goyer says.
• Find a geriatric care manager. Geriatric care managers can be extremely helpful in assisting with home care placement, says Nancy Kriseman, a geriatric consultant and author of The Mindful Caregiver: Finding Ease in the Caregiving Journey. Check with the Aging Life Care Association at aginglifecare.org.
• Reach out to your church or synagogue. An essential source for caregiver help — especially during COVID-19 — is your house of worship, Kriseman says. Many have volunteers who deliver meals and groceries and visit members who are homebound. They also can make recommendations on possible caregiver services.
• Locate a caregiver group through your hospital. That's what Valenze did. The hospital linked her up with Visiting Nurse Associations of America, and she says she was very fortunate that her insurance provider covered the care. Caregivers came twice a day to assist her, and she says they were “phenomenal.”
• Rely on friends and neighbors. Even for those stricken with COVID-19, this could be the most critical help of all. Your “village” of friends and neighbors can cook, shop for groceries and run errands for you while keeping appropriate social distancing. Six years ago, after Valenze had emergency colon surgery that required three months at home to recover, she says she essentially appointed a “chief of staff” among her friends who was in charge of assigning duties, from picking up the mail to food shopping to bringing in the morning paper. “Never be afraid to ask your friends,” she says. “You'll be surprised at how much they want to help."