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June 29, 2021

Five caregiving lessons learned during COVID-19

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Being a caregiver was a big enough responsibility before the pandemic; then it became exponentially harder. On top of feeling claustrophobic and deprived for over a year, I also felt an intense pressure to take care of everyone else, keep them safe, and help them cope with their stress and isolation.

Here’s what I learned personally about caring for others, and myself, during this unprecedented time. These are lessons that will still be relevant and applicable long after the pandemic has passed.

1. Find ways to fill your cup

It’s not self-indulgent to do things that make you happy and ease your stress, even when there’s work to be done. In fact, the heavier your load, the more crucial it is to take care of yourself.

As the CDC points out, it’s very common for women in particular to overextend themselves as caretakers, but the CDC’s advice applies to men as well: if you don’t look after your own mental and physical health, sooner or later you won’t be in any shape to take care of anyone else. So:

  1. Get some endorphins flowing. Maybe you can’t make it to spin class yet, but you can still fire up a YouTube video and do your best Jane Fonda in the living room.
  2. Appreciate nature. I’m going to be blunt: you need to get out of your house, and you need to get some fresh air more often. Okay?
  3. Prioritize self-care. Until my best friend ordered us some nail polish last summer, I hadn’t realized how unlike myself I felt without my trademark red pedicure. But self-care isn’t just about spas. If you haven’t been keeping up with things like your annual flu shot or routine cancer screenings, schedule an appointment — either in person or via telemedicine.
  4. Reach out. No matter how tough it may be, we still need to connect with our communities.

2. Don’t try to do it all by yourself

Just like you, the people in your life need to nurture themselves. When children or older adults are depending on you during difficult times impacting everyone, it may feel like it’s your job to engineer their social and emotional fulfillment. But it’s not, and you can’t.

Instead, ask yourself: What would help them be more independent? Instead of rushing in to fix things, remove barriers and offer alternatives. This will give those you care for the sense of independence that we all crave.

Connecting loved ones with information and resources, and ensuring that their accessibility needs are met, is the key to empowering them. It may also be the key to preserving your sanity.

3. Take turns and take breaks

Before the pandemic, I cooked four or five dinners a week. Eight months in, I was so burnt out I never wanted to cook again. The workload has gotten bigger, but my ability to handle it has not.

For me, the solution was to ask my family to fend for themselves in the kitchen once in a while. You and your housemates should take turns getting and giving each other breaks, both from each other’s responsibilities and each other’s company.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask your friends for help, either. Create a caring support team. Delegate some tasks to others so you don’t have to do literally everything yourself.

4. Have some compassion for yourself and others

There were days when I cried because I thought if I ventured out for salad greens, I would make my immune-compromised parents sick. Other times I thought, if my partner does not leave this house right now, I swear I will pitch her right off the balcony.

Forgive yourself. For everything. For every time you may have snapped at a child who was reaching for his fifth snack since lunch. For every time you didn’t ask what was on a loved one’s mind because you couldn’t handle one more thing without collapsing. Forgive them, too.

5. Give yourself credit for what you’ve lived through and learned

In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic hit caregivers, whether paid or unpaid, first and hardest.

Before we even knew what we were dealing with, we responded in all the thousand little ways that enabled our families to survive this complicated time.

Fast forward to now, and we’re still right there, holding firm. And for that, caregivers everywhere deserve an enormous amount of credit.

An earlier version of this article was originally published on IBX Insights.

About Mara Hughes

I work in Medicare Marketing at Independence and blog about navigating life with chronic illness and other issues relevant to caregivers and health care consumers of all ages.

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