My niece, age seven, hasn’t had any friends over for play dates in a year. So, she invented new ones: sprites she calls her “cousins” — imaginary creatures who flit around her shoulders making mischief. She runs around after them, shouting cheerfully that they must not make a mess in our house.
We watch her twice a week while she goes about the strange business of attending first grade from home – just one of the new shapes that caregiving has taken in this history-making year.
Being a caregiver was a big enough responsibility before the pandemic; now it’s become exponentially harder. Even those of us lucky enough to be working safely from home have been left feeling trapped inside our homes together, cut off from the interactions and activities that used to sustain us. In order to keep each other safe, we had to give up so much of our joy and freedom.
On top of feeling claustrophobic and deprived, I’ve also felt an intense pressure to take care of everyone else, keep them safe, and help them cope with their stress and isolation.
After a year, we know that the end of this health crisis is still a long way off. And we know it’s imperative to keep following all of our well-worn COVID-19 precautions until most Americans have been vaccinated. But luckily, we also know much more now than when the pandemic began…both about COVID-19, and about how to live through it.
Here’s what I’ve learned personally about caring for others, and myself, in this unprecedented time.
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:
- Get some endorphins flowing. Maybe you can’t hit that packed spin class yet, but you can still fire up a YouTube video and do your best Jane Fonda in the living room.
- Appreciate nature. I’m going to be blunt: you need to get out of your house, and you need to get some fresh air. Okay?
- 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.
- Reach out. No matter how tough it may be, we still need to connect with our communities. Schedule phone dates with friends. Take a painting class with a buddy via livestream. Make plans to cook and eat the same meal with loved ones far away.
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 this difficult time, 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.
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. They may be able to take some things off of your plate without even having to enter your home.
Keep risk in perspective.
I deliberated for months about whether it was safe for us to take a vacation this summer. Now that we’ve finally taken the plunge, my only regret about our subdued getaway trip — a rejuvenating, very low-risk week in a remote house in Maine — is that we didn’t go sooner.
We’ve all spent the past year working hard to protect the most vulnerable among us, trying to minimize their infection risk. But even if it seems a tiny bit less safe than staying holed up at home, a masked walk outdoors with a friend on a brisk but sunny day can make everything a lot more bearable, and that matters, too.
Have some compassion for yourself and others.
There have been days this year 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.
Give yourself credit for what you’ve lived through and learned.
In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has 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.
A year in, we’re still right there, holding firm. And we’re even starting to feel like we know what we’re doing!
This pandemic may have made caregiving harder than ever before, but it’s precisely because of how much we care that we’ll pull through it.