Current social distancing guidelines have brought stress and anxiety, especially for family caregivers who are forced to isolate from older or at-risk loved ones.
According to the Caregiver Action Network, more than 90 million Americans provide care to a loved one who has chronic conditions, disabilities, disease, or is experiencing the frailties of old age. These people are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Many family caregivers feel alone in their caregiving journey. With the lockdown, that feeling has reached a whole new level. Prior to the pandemic, surveys showed 48 million people aged 45 and older report being chronically lonely. This age group is the Sandwich Generation, a caregiver cohort who juggle caring for children while also caring for older loved ones—all while working.
Although social isolation and loneliness are increasing for both seniors and family caregivers, they are different. Social isolation is the state of being isolated and not able to interact with others on a regular basis due to illness, disability, or lack of access to social activities. Loneliness is the state of feeling isolated where there is a void in the quality of social relationships. In other words, loneliness is about how we feel, regardless of who is around us. Being socially isolated makes loneliness worse.
How Loneliness Impacts Health
Researcher Julianne Holt-Lundstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, studied what she calls “the global loneliness epidemic” and the impact of chronic loneliness on health. She found loneliness can cause a negative health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It can actually be a bigger health risk than obesity and air pollution. In fact, it is such a concern in the United Kingdom that the nation named its first Minister of Loneliness in 2018 to address the growing public health crisis.
Caregivers are struggling with the inability to have face-to-face contact during the pandemic. Psychologist and author, Susan Pinker, warns this isolation has harmful effects on our health. Pinker’s work points to social contact being linked with the release of neurotransmitters that trigger our brain to feel trust and comfort. Pinker advises that current social distancing rules prohibiting things such as handshakes and hugs are also limiting the release of hormones such as oxytocin, which makes us feel bonded to others, or dopamine, which can elevate our mood and reduce pain. In her TED Talk, Pinker explained how social contacts create a vaccine, not just for loneliness but as “a biological force field between disease and decline.”
It’s important we be mindful to consider at what point social distancing and lack of human contact becomes a greater public health risk than COVID-19.
How Monday Might Be the Prescription Caregivers Need
Finding ways to overcome loneliness as a caregiver is sometimes easier said than done. But using a scientifically based method that helps promote healthier behaviors can help. The Caregiver Monday campaign is part of The Monday Campaigns nonprofit public health initiative, dedicated to using Mondays to focus on caregiver self-care practices and promotion.
A 2019 survey conducted by Data Decisions Group for The Monday Campaigns found 64 percent of respondents said if they start with a positive frame of mind on Monday, they are more likely to stay positive for the rest of the week.
Using Monday as a weekly reminder to stay connected can help create a rhythm and routine that makes it easier to plan and sustain that effort. It can also create a sense of happy anticipation that enhances positive emotions that combat loneliness. Try any of these four ideas on Mondays to stay socially connected and defeat loneliness:
Online support groups: Talking with other caregivers who understand your challenges creates an important sense of inclusion.
Friends and family: Making time to connect with friends or geographically distant family is essential. Using video chats—and ensuring you look into the camera instead of the computer or tablet screen—helps simulate the face-to-face contact that will improve emotional and physical health.
Local community: Make Monday the day you get out of the house and have social interaction. As communities begin to relax shelter-in-place rules and allow for more activity, grabbing a morning coffee and saying “hello” to your favorite barista can help overcome feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Get a respite break: Some employers offer respite care benefits and there are many organizations that provide respite help at low or no cost through the nonprofit ARCH National Respite Network. Having this caregiving break gives you critical time to focus on self-care and connect with home care aides that can make you feel less alone.
Sherri Snelling is a corporate gerontologist and ambassador for the Caregiver Monday campaign. She specializes in caregiver wellness, psychosocial behavior modification and brain health/Alzheimer’s. She is founder of the Caregiving Club, a consulting and content creation company working with employers to encourage caregiver self-care in the workplace.