How do Alzheimer’s caregivers cope with the indefinite precautions essential to keep themselves and their patients safe from COVID-19?

What is pandemic fatigue?

Pandemic fatigue occurs when individuals begin to tire of the guidelines and restrictions necessary to protect a population from disease. Some become less likely to follow public health guidelines, while others choose to ignore those precautions. In essence, it is a feeling of “burnout” resulting from having to stick to public health measures for an extended period.

A growing problem

The problem of pandemic fatigue has become increasingly evident as COVID-19 rates surge across the U.S., Europe, and other parts of the world. Although we are making progress towards a vaccine and reliable therapeutic drugs, solutions are not yet available.

Scientists and public health experts agree that COVID-19 is a highly transmissible virus seeking a host (the human body). So, if the virus has no place to go, it cannot spread.

Subsequently, we need to do what is necessary to limit its transmissibility. If we take appropriate actions, we can significantly reduce the spread of the virus.

Healthcare professionals have established and promoted simple but effective guidelines with this end in mind. Unfortunately, after eight months, many have become tired of taking precautions against a potentially deadly disease.

What does pandemic fatigue have to do with Alzheimer’s caregivers?

Alzheimer’s dementia patients are already especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Their cognitive impairment compromises their ability to remember and practice these essential precautions.

Despite their dedication, if caregivers become inconsistent or stop taking precautions altogether, they and their care recipients will be at risk of contracting the virus. Furthermore, the risk increases for COVID-19 to spread beyond the care situation to their respective families.

As of April 2019, 15.7 million family members in the U.S. care for someone with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. The family member may be a spouse, partner, relative, friend, or neighbor. Moreover, these family members represent 87% of all caregivers in the U.S. Most of the remaining 13% are a diverse group of healthcare professionals who might work in the patient’s home, a daycare, or a group home setting.

Today, caregivers have significant responsibilities beyond the daily living and medical tasks of their Alzheimer’s patients. Specifically, they face additional responsibilities related to protecting themselves and their patients from exposure to COVID-19. As such, I feel that these millions of essential workers are unquestionably at risk for pandemic fatigue.

What can we do to guard against pandemic fatigue?

Carisa Parrish, M.A., Ph.D., is the Co-Director of Pediatric Medical Psychology and an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In an August 2020 article, she acknowledged the difficulty for many in keeping up with these essential precautions indefinitely.

Dr. Parrish offers several suggestions on remaining vigilant in our practices and guarding against pandemic fatigue. The following strategies are unquestionably applicable to the caregivers of Alzheimer’s dementia patients.

Make a commitment

Many of us wear a helmet when riding a bike. We stop at traffic lights when driving a car. In fact, we maintain many other potentially life-saving practices that have become habits.

These practices began with a decision: I want to do the right thing to keep myself and others safe, even if that means some inconveniences or accepting temporary limitations on my civil liberties.

The same principle applies to frequent hand washing, maintaining an appropriate physical distance, and wearing a mask in public. Doing these things will help protect the caregiver, care recipient, and others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stay flexible as recommendations change

Some recommendations concerning how to prevent exposure to COVID-19 have changed over the past eight months. Updated information can be confusing, but changes are often unavoidable. Since this virus is both new and highly transmissible, we’ve had to learn about it as it was spreading.

For news and information concerning changes in recommendations, stick with trustworthy information from qualified, reliable sources. Use updated information to make adjustments and incorporate these improved practices into your daily routines for you and your Alzheimer’s dementia patient.

Practice precautions until they become habits

The first time you put on your seat belt or put your child in a safety seat, it may have felt like a chore, but you knew it was the right thing to do.

So when it comes to practices that protect from COVID-19, I encourage caregivers to keep doing them until they become habits. In time, putting a mask on, physically distancing from others, or hand washing becomes something one does without thinking about it.

Keep necessary supplies handy

Dr. Parrish also recommends making sure it’s easy to find a mask when needed. She says that to “reduce barriers,” she has several masks and keeps them in different places for easy access.

The same principle applies to frequent hand washing/sanitizing. Place small bottles of hand sanitizer throughout the house/workspace. Doing so will reduce the barriers to regular use.

Adapting to life for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic

The fundamental challenge to our caregivers is that they cannot give up. Of course, we all wish we could return to a life free of the virus. One where we could travel freely, dine out whenever and wherever we desire, and enjoy our family and friends without risks to anyone.

But the truth is that COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. One or more vaccines and therapeutic drugs will undoubtedly be available in 2021. However, it will take time to distribute these throughout the entire population.

In short, even when a vaccine is approved and becomes available, ending the COVID-19 pandemic will take time.

Until then, we need to make good choices and demonstrate behaviors that limit or prevent further spread of the virus. In the final analysis, the best reason to wear a mask out in public, wash our hands frequently, and maintain appropriate physical distancing is that these recommended strategies have proven most effective in accomplishing this goal.

Therefore, I encourage caregivers to accept this new, albeit temporary reality. Embrace public health guidelines. Stay committed to these practices until they become good habits.

If caregivers remain vigilant, they can help stop the spread of COVID-19 and potentially save lives as they strive to protect themselves and their care recipients.