We Are Not OK: Family Caregivers in Crisis

Many people are entering week three of physical isolation to help stop the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus and although individuals are likely getting anxious and more than a little antsy, most are fortunate enough to have food, shelter, heat and thankfully internet access.  But not all people are faring as well during these challenging times. Caregivers of loved ones with dementia may be facing endless days without help looking after the needs and coping with combative behaviors associated with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Older adults with dementia rely on a routine and structure to help them get through the day with less struggle.  With the stay-at-home order in place to try and flatten the spread of coronavirus, many caregivers are left alone, without support or any respite care and it is taking a huge emotional and physical toll.  

Family caregivers are often advised to take breaks and practice self-care to be able to better manage the stress and strain of caring for a loved one with dementia.  But if assistance is no longer available, what can be done to help caregivers in isolation?  According to a recent AARP Family Caregiving article, caregivers can better cope with stress and frustration by giving themselves permission to feel irritated, stressed or even angry.  When it gets too much, caregivers may not be able to leave the house but they may be able to find a separate space to take a break, even if it’s only for a few minutes, to listen to music, meditate or read.  

For those who are unable to leave their loved one alone, even for a moment, the situation is more dire. It is important to find ways to de-escalate situations and to keep their own physical and emotional well-being in check. Be careful not to shrink away from those who could help even in this time of self-isolation. Video technologies and the telephone may be your lifelines. Advocating for oneself by asking for help when it’s needed is important.

Even though we may be physically separated, it’s important to stay socially connected with friends and family.  Picking up the phone to talk with a friend or video chat with grandchildren can be a huge boost to morale.   Try to find activities that create a sense of calm; familiar music or old movies can be settling for people with dementia.  Looking at family photo albums or enjoying a favorite meal may also ease tension. 

There can be many contributing factors to aggression or anger among people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, and it may be helpful to rule out pain, hunger, thirst, fatigue or medication side effects as a cause.  Behavioral symptoms of dementia do not always follow a straight line of cause and effect.  Joining an online support group or reaching out to a local Alzheimer’s association may help caregivers better manage difficult situations. 

Learn more about coping with agitation and aggression in Alzheimer’s disease by following this link to the National Institute on Aging.  Talk with your doctor about medication to help reduce problem behaviors and call 911 if a loved one is becoming violent.