The past year has been a challenging one, particularly for caregivers.

In addition to the normal isolation and stress of looking after a loved one, caregivers faced the added fear and anxiety of the coronavirus. Many struggled with the worry that they might inadvertently bring the potentially deadly illness home from work or into a nursing home if they visited.

“They were using a lot of energy and emotion to make sure they didn’t kill someone,” said Dr. Donna Benton, an associate professor of gerontology at USC and the director of the USC Family Caregiver Support Center. “The extra precautions took an emotional toll.”

But with vaccination, those fears of unexpected death have receded, and caregivers have begun to step out into the world again and also welcome the vaccinated world into their homes.

These new activities can provide a moment for caregivers to take time for themselves, and it’s important that they do so in a variety of ways. Here are some suggestions Dr. Benton has for taking advantage of the new opportunities.

1) Find Space and Respite

For many caregivers, stay-at-home orders meant there was little opportunity to step away from their loved ones to refresh themselves and get needed separation. But now, vaccinated friends and professional caregivers can safely enter your home, so welcome them inside and step outside yourself to take advantage of this new freedom. Adult day cares are also now possibilities, so drop your loved one off for a fun time out while you also take some time to enjoy favored activities. “Put a little space in between you and the person you’re caring for,” Dr. Benton advised. “Do something that makes you smile and that isn’t about caregiving or Covid.”

2) Reconnect With Support 

For the past year, many support groups went online, which meant some caregivers couldn’t participate in the normal way because the Zoom call had to occur in the same room as their loved one. However, now things have changed. Even if a support group is still online, caregivers can ask someone to watch their loved one, grab their phones, go to a coffee shop or the park, and participate away from home. Or if your local group is now meeting in person, take the opportunity to go to a meeting and connect with others struggling with similar issues. Connection is vital to healthy caregiving, so step out and try to find it.

3) Restart Traditions

In order to “make your caregiving joyful,” bring back the traditions for birthdays and holidays that may have fallen by the wayside over the past year. Although it might take some time before you feel ready for a crowded holiday gathering, it’s still important to celebrate. Isolation escalated dramatically over the past year, and restarting traditions in whatever way is comfortable for you “will make you feel part of the group again.”

4) Safeguard Your Health

Many caregivers put aside their own health appointments for more than a year, but now is the time to go back to the doctor and do preventative health care. If any other health needs suffered, such as exercise, sleep, or mental stimulation, then attend to those things now that you can do so more safely. Go back to your yoga class or weekly game night with friends. Maybe therapy would help you process the past year. It’s important to take care of you, so do so and remember that, in the long run, caring for yourself makes both you and your loved one more secure and healthy.

As you rejoin your normal activities, be prepared for some setbacks. For example, if you were unable to visit your loved one for a year, and you now find them changed due to weight loss, mental deterioration, or some other shift, you may feel responsible in some way. However, keep in mind that such changes may have occurred regardless of Covid restrictions. A year has passed, and “cognitive and physical declines get worse over time,” Dr. Benton said. “It’s important to put any guilty or regretful feelings into perspective.”

Thank you for reading, please share with a friend, and be well. —KK

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