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.
Shift your mindset
Since optimism is better for us, take steps to enhance your cautiously optimistic thinking. For starters, you could bring your attention more fully to some of the unforeseen benefits (amid many detrimental effects, admittedly) of this halt to our normally hectic lives: a greater chance to see the flowering springtime and hear the repetitive calls of the migrating birds; the opportunity to enjoy the company of your family members; and the time to reinvigorate long-dormant home-cooking skills. Keeping a gratitude journal is another means of heightening our awareness of the good things we still have.
Shift your activities
In the same way that directing your thoughts can lead to a more hopeful outlook, directing your activities can do the same. It is potentially harmful to watch 10 hours of cable news shows at this time; the sheer volume of frightening images and information will take its toll on your psyche. Keep informed but balance news-seeking with engaging in cherished activities that bring you joy and perhaps laughter like reading, playing games or listening to music.
Reach out to positive-minded friends
It is more vital than ever to virtually reach out to friends and family members for support by sharing experiences, fears and well wishes. But those conversations shouldn't be so gloomy as to reinforce your hopelessness or deepen your despair. Find the folks who can sustain a more balanced and realistic view, recognizing these negative times but positive possibilities as well. Let them spur you to hang on to the belief that — despite the painful losses we have suffered or will suffer — better times will eventually come. We will hurt but we will grow through overcoming this national adversity.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
More Coronavirus Information for Caregivers
- Keeping loved ones active at home during coronavirus outbreak
- Practical tips for caregivers concerned about coronavirus
- Handling non-COVID-19 health issues during the pandemic