Monday 20 April 2020

Coronavirus and being isolated from a loved one

Last month I wrote about the coronavirus pandemic and answered two questions families supporting a loved one are grappling with: How do we hand-wash more and how do we self-isolate?

For families who aren’t in the same household, however, they are living through many weeks, which may potentially become months, without physically seeing their loved ones. If a family member is in a care home that isolation period may be the longest any of us experience, since care homes are - as we have seen - incredibly vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks. 

Indeed, the impact of coronavirus on care homes and the devastation being wreaked in terms of illness and death amongst residents (as well as the huge risks many staff are taking if they don’t have adequate personal protective equipment) is on a scale that even on the current estimations is truly horrific.

Fears for a loved one in a care home

For numerous families, reading these stories will only magnify their own immense fears for the health of their loved ones in care homes, and many will feel utterly powerless and dreading every ring on their phone. Although we never lived through anything like this with my dad, there is no doubt that I know the fear of illness well, since dad was hospitalised numerous times in the last nine years of his life. 

For us, the dreaded phone calls would often come in the middle of the night and would usually be because dad had a worsening chest or bladder infection. Time after time dad pulled through until the last, catastrophic bout of pneumonia that eventually overwhelmed him.

With care homes currently in strict lockdowns, the ban on visiting has both emotional and practical ramifications. The longest I ever went without seeing my dad during his nine years in care homes would have been around three weeks when one of his care homes had a norovirus outbreak, and it was characterised by constant worry.

The pain of separation 

Fast forward to 2020, and most families are faced with being apart for far longer. The pain this separation will be causing many people was something I thought about whilst reflecting on my dad’s 93rd birthday earlier this month. We were lucky to be able to spend every birthday with my dad, but so many people will be unable to do that during this pandemic. 

The stark feeling facing many families will be the anxiety that it could be their loved one’s last birthday and they won’t have those memories of being together. Whilst this may sound trivial to some in the face of the threat of coronavirus, the loss of the celebration of these milestones together only enforces the painful separation. And of course if a loved one is approaching the end of their life and you aren’t able to see them, the effect on grieving families is immense. We can buy many things and do a huge amount as 21st century citizens, but we cannot buy time, nor replace the physical touch of hand in hand or cheek on cheek.

Ways to keep in touch with your loved one when you are apart

Much has been said about the power of the digital world to bridge the yawning chasm many families are feeling, and it is undoubtedly the best option for at least seeing each other’s faces and hearing each other’s voices through mediums like Skype, FaceTime and Zoom.

More traditional options like sending letters, cards and photographs might seem less appealing, but for the older generation and particularly if someone’s dementia is advancing, these might be more understandable and recognisable than digital options. 

Bear in mind too that as someone’s dementia progresses, a phone call may be incredibly difficult for them to contribute to as it contains none of the visual clues, like mouth movements and body language, that can help the person to understand what you are staying. And of course they cannot see you, so simply saying who you are may not be enough of a reminder.

Practical things you can do for your loved one

If you are wanting to do something more for your loved one than just keeping in touch, these would be my top three suggestions:
  • Make a life story resource. It may be that one of your lockdown projects is to sort through old photographs or memorabilia at home, or do some family tree research. Commit to creating a life story resource from items you may have at home, or things you can find online about your loved one’s life. You could turn these items (using copies of any precious originals) into a life story book, box, collage for a wall or other resource. You could be more creative too, as this care worker was when she had a cushion created for a gentleman who was missing his late wife. And don’t wait until you see your loved one to give them your life story gifts - research an affordable door-to-door courier (examples here) and make it a lovely surprise for your relative to open during this lockdown.
  • Make a playlist. If you know the music your loved one enjoys, begin a playlist for them. If you are unsure of some details, liaise with staff and make it a three-way remote project between yourself, your loved one and the care worker(s) supporting them.
  • Send a food parcel, or package up favourite cosmetics, clothing, books, magazines, cd’s, dvd’s, hobby materials or other things your loved one will enjoy receiving. There are lots of things you can order online and have them delivered straight to your loved one, or get some extra items with your grocery shop, package them up and send them via a door-to-door courier. Again, this will make a lovely surprise.
All of these ideas, of course, won’t ever replace that personal contact, but in the face of the current restrictions I hope families will find comfort in being able to do something practical to feel more useful and to ease those long days until they meet again.

Next month I will continue to look at the issues raised by the coronavirus pandemic. Until then:
  • Keep safe
  • Stay at home
  • Keep your distance from others
  • Look after yourselves
  • And stay well.
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
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