En español | "I got the vaccine!” My mother's voice on the phone sounded pleased and a bit confused. “But I felt sleepy afterward. I took a three-hour nap.”
I was jealous and relieved. Jealous at the thought of a three-hour nap and relieved that my sisters and I could relax just a little. One more booster shot to go!
For older adults and the medically compromised, the vaccine brings a palpable sense of liberation. Watching images on the news of smiling people getting inoculated, flashing the two-fingered “V” for victory, I feel hopeful, despite the fact that the virus continues to burn through our country at an astounding rate, disrupting lives and families and limiting human interaction.
During the pandemic, caregivers have layered on the extra stress of keeping everyone safe from the virus, including themselves. Once minor events, such as going to the grocery store or having a family member relieve you of caregiving for a few precious hours, must now be weighed against the risks. For all of us, it's exhausting. But for many caregivers, it's like an extra set of ankle weights.
As a Sacramento, California–based restaurant reviewer and mother, Kate Washington, 48, is also a caregiver for her husband, Brad, 50, a cancer survivor who is immune-suppressed. “When I heard that he was eligible to get the vaccine, it was like letting out a breath I didn't know I was holding,” she says. “It will mean he can get out more, our kids can see a few friends and, selfishly, I won't be doing all the grocery shopping.” Washington, who has written a memoir about her unexpected caregiving journey called Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout in America, describes her thought process as they all went into lockdown in 2020. “It activated all my old reflexes on how to be an advocate and support a person during a health crisis,” she says. “I found myself mentally rehearsing exactly who I'd call and what I'd do if Brad got exposed or sick. It didn't hit me until several weeks into the pandemic that I could get sick myself, and I had no plan for that!”
Tears of joy — and relief
Jenna McKinney, 63, of Harrison, New York, has been making the two-hour drive to see her mother in New Jersey for decades. The trips increased when her stepfather died and her mom was no longer able to live independently. Despite having a sibling nearby, the responsibilities — and the joys — of caregiving have fallen almost solely on McKinney. In the past few months, with the lockdown of her mother's facility, she made the drive just to be able to see her mother through her window, where they had a routine of placing their hands on each side of the glass. After her mother got the vaccine last week, McKinney burst into tears while relaying the story to a friend. “I don't think I fully realized how much I was walking on eggshells, praying that she wouldn't catch the virus.”
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Cheers for vaccinators
Those administering the vaccines at long-term care facilities have a unique vantage point. Bob Atighechi, 48, is a CVS pharmacist from Rocky Hill, Connecticut, who administered one of the first five vaccine shots in the country. “It was incredible to witness the immense relief, not just of the residents, but their caregivers,” he remembers. “The extreme isolation that our elderly have been enduring is hard to witness."
Emad Habash, 41, a regional CVS pharmacy director in Indianapolis, describes his first week of vaccinating as “nothing like anything I've seen in my career.” Caregivers, residents and staff greeted his team with loud cheers, applause and raised hands. One woman broke down in tears. “I'm so excited,” her husband told Habash. “We've had to be so careful with her diabetes, and now maybe we can see our family and grandkids."
Caring for each other
As a resident of Newbury Court, in Concord, Massachusetts, author Katharine Esty, 85, had a decision to make when the lockdown came: Should she cohabitate with her newish boyfriend or should they stay in their separate apartments and not be able to see each other at all. With a few hours to act, they moved some of his things into her apartment, where they could care for each other.
"Many of the spouses here are primary caregivers to their loved ones, some of whom have dementia and other issues,” she says. “I worried about my friends and tried to stay in touch by phone.” She was determined to be by her boyfriend's side when he got the vaccine, because he had experienced allergic reactions to medications in the past. “He handled it all like a champ, with no side effects,” she says. “Seeing people again was a reminder that relationships are what matter most.”
And in a final reminder that frontline health care workers wear multiple hats, Benjamin Skov, 26, a CVS pharmacist from Coventry, Rhode Island, was able to vaccinate his own grandparents at one of the clinics. When he stopped by afterward to check on them, his grandmother dissolved into tears. “Out in the field, we see the reactions of patients and staff, but rarely the rest of the family,” he says. “I think the biggest thing for us all to remember is that for every patient who's glad to be vaccinated, there's an entire family who we put at ease."