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Caring for caregivers: Outbreak adding to stress

Mary Beth Schmidhamer works on an afghan she plans to donate to a fundraiser to be held once the coronavirus pandemic subsides. Schmidhamer, 57, is the primary caregiver for her mother, Ann, who turns 80 today. Experts say the outbreak is exacerbating the stress of caregiving and advise caregivers to establish a daily routine to help cope with stay-at-home orders. Mirror photo by Holly Claycomb

Ann Schmidhamer of Altoona turns 80 today and her daughter and caregiver Mary Beth Schmidhamer is doing her best to make the milestone day special during this time of social distancing.

She’s asked friends to “shower” her mother with birthday cards, she purchased a plant at a local grocery store and hung it outside within view when her mother sits in the living room.

In this COVID-19 environment, Mary Beth practices social distancing and wears a mask if she leaves the house. On a weekly trip to the grocery store, Mary Beth carries her own wipes to disinfect the grocery cart and purchases. Back in the car, she disinfects her hands. After arriving at home, she removes her shoes inside the door in the laundry room where her mother doesn’t venture.

Mary Beth, 57, is one of an estimated 43.5 million adult Americans who care for a senior family member, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. An additional 15.7 million adult family caregivers care for someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Even under normal circumstances, caregiving is stressful, said Connie Chow, founder of DailyCaring.com, and stress is exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s tough — especially when the usual support systems are closed,” Chow said in a phone interview from San Francisco, Calif.

“If you care for an older adult who usually attends an adult day program, but now that program is closed, then the caregiver may be working from home and providing full-time care at home — it’s really tough,” Chow said.

Also impacted are adult caregivers who were planning to move a mother or father into an assisted living facility or nursing home. Those facilities are on lockdown to minimize the spread of the virus.

For the Schmidhamers, obeying the stay-at-home order and following social distancing guidelines is keeping them healthy and safe.

“I’m trying to stay away from people,” Mary Beth said. Her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, suffered a stroke in January, so Mary Beth often has to re-explain daily tasks for her mother, such as how to work the TV remote or the personal amplifier she uses to hear shows better. Those reminders are in addition to pandemic-related explanations like why she can’t run to the grocery store for a nonessential item like birdseed for their backyard feeder.

Chow said establishing a daily routine helps all under stay-at-home orders — seniors and those caring for them.

Mary Beth agrees with Chow as she balances her time between her mother, working from home and her own self-care. Her day starts with personal prayer and Bible reading, exercise to YouTube videos, and household tasks, including larger projects.

“The first couple days in quarantine, I found myself spending hours on the internet playing games and scrolling Facebook. I thought, ‘I can’t do this the whole time,’ so I made a list of all the things I’ve wanted to do that I hadn’t gotten to,” she said. She tackles a project every other day and so far has re-organized her laundry room and bedroom closet.

Ann enjoys watching television but often “channel surfs,” so Mary Beth will go read in her bedroom.

When they watch TV together, Mary Beth keeps her hands busy crocheting — a skill she first learned from her grandmother when she was just 10-years-old. This time at home enabled Mary Beth to complete a crochet project sooner than she expected — a large purple, pink and cream afghan in a corner-to-corner pattern made from caron yarn.

She is donating the afghan as a fundraiser for the Carmelite Community of the Word’s Haiti Fet that has been rescheduled to Sept. 27.

Such craft projects are also helpful for those with dementia or physical limitations, Chow said, but the task or craft must fit their ability level.

“You want it to be a bit challenging, but not too much. You don’t want to have them become frustrated,” Chow said. Folding a basket of hand towels, sorting coins or nuts and bolts are activities that many seniors can undertake and items are found around the house.

“The person feels like they are contributing to the household and are being helpful, especially if the caregiver presents it as ‘it would be helpful to me if you could fold these towels.’ Some (caregivers) keep the same basket of towels just for this purpose. The (senior) has the satisfaction of achievement.”

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

Suggested activities for seniors from DailyCaring.com founder Connie Chow:

* Fill an empty water bottle with beans or rice. Use it as a fun shaker to keep the beat when listening to music.

* Puzzles. Select a puzzle with large, easily handled pieces. Puzzles with 50 to 100 pieces are often best suited to those with dementia.

* Use a home printer to create a custom-designed puzzle that features a senior’s favorite hobby, animal or scene. Print out the photo on a heavy stock of paper or glue the photo onto cardboard. Then cut into puzzle shapes.

* Create a memory or rummage box filled with household items that will remind your loved one of a favorite hobby, a job they had or a family outing. For example, a secretary might enjoy a box filled with pencils, paper, notepads and paper clips, and she could talk about how they were used in her career.

* Take large-hole pasta and sturdy string or yarn and make pasta necklaces and bracelets.

* Drawing, coloring, painting and sculpture are fun ways to be creative and can be expanded into projects such as creating scrapbooks, organizing family photo albums or making a family recipe book.

Lisa Moyer, long-term living program supervisor at Blair Senior Services offers these ideas:

* Be sure your loved one’s census response has been completed. The census has been overshadowed by COVID-19, but it is still important.

* Socialize from your porch with neighbors.

* Contact friends or family you haven’t spoken to in a while.

* Write letters or cards.

* Bird watching from a porch or inside through a window.

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