Barry J. Jacobs, AARP
Seven years ago, when my mother's fever spiked so high that she was mumbling deliriously, I called 911 and waited in terror for the paramedics to arrive, suddenly frightened about what was going to happen. Two large men soon strapped her to a gurney and rolled her out quickly, then loaded her into the ambulance and sped off. I followed in my car. Within the hour, I was told by a young doctor in the stark emergency room hallway that my mother had a raging lung infection due to community-acquired pneumonia and was close to death.
Over the next 12 hours — while her outcome was in doubt as the nurses pumped her full of antibiotics through an IV tube — I despaired. I cried to my wife, “I'm not ready for my mother to die.” I paced her hospital room wondering how this crisis had arisen so quickly. I questioned myself about whether I could have prevented her infection. If she didn't recover, how would I handle her loss and the void I would feel? (She did thankfully rally and survive.)
We are now in a global pandemic in which many family caregivers will likely experience the same kind of shock, uncertainty and fear I did. We worry that COVID-19 may sicken our loved ones or as caregivers that we may somehow bring the virus into our homes. We also fear that we might fall ill and leave our care recipients in need. These are dire moments that can bring out the best or worst in us. It requires our holding on to hope that the pandemic will eventually be brought under control and the people we love will survive. Hope gives us strength. It bolsters our resilience. It pushes us on when we don't think we can do any more.
There is no single means for finding hope. Many family caregivers draw deeply on their faith; others on individual grit; some on others’ inspiring encouragement. As this crisis unfolds, what are other ways for generating the hope that caregivers and their loved ones will avoid contracting the virus or pull through if they do? Here are some psychological ideas:
Monitor your temperament
Through our temperaments and upbringing, each of us is typically inclined toward regarding the world through the lens of a brooding pessimist or a beaming optimist. These tendencies only become more pronounced under the duress of a crisis. Pessimists usually argue that fearing the worst better prepares them for possible catastrophe. But research by psychologist Martin Seligman and others shows that optimists are happier and less prone to anguish and depression, even when danger is realistically present. Do you have a sense of your natural tendency? If you don't or are simply interested in gauging your thinking's direction nowadays, keep a daily journal in which you record your current preoccupying thoughts and save that document to be reviewed in, say, a week. Rereading those entries will quickly clue you in to where you are psychologically and allow you to determine whether you need to take steps to better cope with the current crisis.