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COVID-19 creating mental health concerns for majority of unpaid caregivers

A new study from the CDC shows how an already stressful task has become much more challenging during the coronavirus pandemic

LONGVIEW, Texas — The stress of the pandemic can get to anyone. It could be from losing a job, trying to not get the virus, or missing visits with friends and family. However, there is one group of people who are especially impacted by these stressful times.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that unpaid caregivers suffer much more than the general population. Two thirds of all unpaid caregivers say they have experienced anxiety or depression, suicidal thoughts, or new or increased substance use.

“If they don’t take care of themselves, they’re not gonna be there to take care of a loved one,” Cassandra Brenton said. “And many caregivers will pass before their loved one does. It is extremely stressful. It is the hardest job in the world.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than five million Americans live with Alzheimer’s. About 16 million people are unpaid caregivers for those patients, and the time they give is worth more than $240 billion per year.

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Brenton is a certified dementia care specialist and board member for the East Texas Alzheimer’s Alliance (ETAA). She says she has noticed an increase in stress among her clients. She urged caregivers to take simple actions, including reading a book in a separate room or deep breaths, in order to better manage their well-being.

“It’s just really important for them to try to stay as calm as possible,” she said. “I know caregivers don’t breathe deeply, and deep breathing helps reduce cortisol levels and will calm them down. And our loved ones, who may not be aware of it, but they mirror our stress. And so, when the caregiver is uptight, your loved one is gonna be uptight.”

Caring for a loved one with dementia is hard enough. Doing so in the age of coronavirus, is even tougher because options for help just are not there. Beth Godsey, East Texas Alzheimer’s Alliance’s executive director, says it has canceled several of its services, including in-person support groups (some of which have moved online), a speaker series for caregivers and medical professionals, and institutional respite care.

“We provide respite up to three days for any need that they need, to be in an institution, a memory care facility, so that they can go and know that their loved one is taken care of,” she said. “And that’s kind of been put on hold, just because the institutions are all on lockdown.”

Godsey also cares for her aging father, so she knows the challenges caregivers face. “All the resources that I had at my fingertips, I know I’m just thankful for the people that I had to reach out to who could help me,” she said.

Since the agency cannot offer a lot of its services, Godsey says it is finding creative ways to give caregivers a break, including free in-home respite care.

“We’re gonna donate 20 hours where we will pay for," She said. "If someone needs someone just to come sit with their loved one for three hours so they can go to an appointment themselves. A doctor’s appointment or something, or just come help clean their house, or whatever that they need.”

Godsey expects the program to begin in the next week or two. She says that ETAA partners with the Area Agency on Aging on an additional free in-home respite care program for families with Alzheimer’s.

Brenton says time spent with friends and family is something that may be tough to find at the moment, but is vital for both caregivers and patients. “That’s really, really important,” she said. “They can Skype. Try to find ways to have that social interaction. We all need it."

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