Tips for caregivers who fear exposing loved ones to the coronavirus


5 min read

Caregiver holding a senior woman's hands

Members of UOPX’s College of Nursing offer personal and professional perspectives on ways to keep yourself and your loved one safe.

Torri Rhodes has a plan she hopes never comes to fruition.

Rhodes is the caregiver for her 79-year-old mother, who is considered high-risk for COVID-19 due to her age and multiple chronic illnesses, and is planning accordingly for the worst-case scenario.

In her home, there is an increased emphasis on personal hygiene, with she and her mom both showering twice per day, once in the morning and once at night. All clothes are washed daily. Rhodes keeps doors and gates locked so no one can enter uninvited. Visits with grandchildren, friends and family are happening virtually to reduce the risk of exposure.

“I’m planning for possible COVID-19 infections,” she said. “It’s important for caregivers to think intentionally about their responsibilities and create a plan to reduce inadvertent exposure to the coronavirus.”  

Rhodes, assistant director and full-time lead faculty of clinical education in the College of Nursing at the Sacramento Valley Campus/Modesto Learning Center, is like hundreds of thousands of caregivers across the country – professional or personal – facing stress and pressure to protect people in high-risk groups. Since a caregiver’s responsibilities can’t just cease due to social distancing guidelines, many are concerned and even fearful that they may be exposing those in their care to the coronavirus. It is important that they have a safety plan, but people without a background in healthcare may not know where to start.

Dr. Kathleen Winston, Dean of the College of Nursing at University of Phoenix, emphasized practicing preventative methods to limit exposure to others, as the virus can enter through the eyes, nose, mouth and ears. Any close contact for care, such as bathing or transferring, could lead to illness and should be done while wearing a mask. But more must be done.

Part of the plan, she said, is considering every possible entry point. Caregivers should plan and group errands to get everything you need in one outing, while be vigilant when they need to leave and return. While some businesses offer elderly-only hours, crowds may be greater during that time, so it may be more practical to go when times are slower outside of these special hours. It may mean calling ahead to ask about store traffic and plan accordingly. Also, elderly only hours does not mean it is safe to bring your high-risk loved one to that location.

Dr. Winston also emphasized the importance of multiple hand washes when you leave and return and disposing of gloves or bags used to transfer supplies or wash them immediately. The overall goal is to guard the immune system from microbes, viruses and bacteria. Get your loved one out in the sunshine for some vitamin D, especially if that is what they are used to. It’s a great way to incorporate part of an old routine into a new one.

“The caregiver could become the potential vector to bring back COVID-19, so be aware and selective when you go out for essentials,” Dr. Winston said.

“Protect your loved ones by protecting yourself,”

— Dr. Kathleen Winston, Dean of the College of Nursing, University of Phoenix

Jen Millar, RN, MSN, agrees that sprinkling in a bit of the old routine with the new can help with transitioning to the new normal. Millar is the program chair for pre-licensure programs in the College of Nursing, and she is also the caregiver for her 27-year-old nonverbal daughter.

Her daughter’s regular routine used to include an adult day program, but the program is currently closed due to COVID-19. It has required embracing a whole new daily routine, with some intentional virtual inclusion of familiar faces and places to help adjust.

Millar admits the first couple weeks felt like a vacation, but then it was time to create what the new normal would look like in their home. She and her husband agreed to embrace later bedtimes for their daughter and allow her to sleep in a bit later, turning breakfast into brunch. They’ve also been more lenient with access to electronics. It wasn’t easy to make this shift, Millar admits, but it was necessary to adjust.

The new routine includes alterations for Millar and her husband, who is now also working remotely as a seventh-grade history teacher. They stop working at a predetermined time each day and spend time together outside as a family. The introduction of a new routine has helped her daughter cope with change.

“It’s important to give up part of what was,” she said. “Letting go was hard for me, but for now, it’s okay. My daughter is thriving on this new routine.”

Millar emphasized the importance of showing those we care for extra grace and love. She shared a personal example of a recent time her daughter started crying during a movie. A typical response would be to simply tell her that it’s okay. But with all the change and uncertainty that have led to heightened anxieties, Millar instead sat with her daughter and let her cry.

Caregivers also need to remember to take care of themselves. Being entrusted with the well-being of others is a big job, and in order to be your best self, you need to pay attention to your own needs as well. View it as a necessity, not a luxury, if that helps to prioritize it. Those who are naturally selfless may have trouble doing this.

“Caregivers are givers by nature, so it takes perspective to decompress,” she said. “Be kind to yourself.”