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Caring for the elderly just got more stressful

We who oversee the care of elderly friends or family know what stress is all about — in normal times. It’s a hard job, physically and mentally. Even for those who can hire others to help out, there remains worry about paying good wages to keep good people, and coordinating doctor visits and prescriptions.

Intensive caregiving is known to unleash an anxiety and social isolation that can compromise one’s own immune system and its ability to fight off diseases. Now everyone faces the coronavirus threat. But keeping it away from our old people creates new complexities on multiple fronts.

I oversee the care of an 89-year-old friend. Though doing relatively well, he’s been treated for multiple myeloma and atrial fibrillation. Thankfully, he can still use the bathroom by himself, dress (slowly) and operate a Keurig coffee maker. And that lets him stay in his house — aided with meals and household chores by professional caregivers or me.

What happens should he need 24-hour care? This bad dream haunts almost everyone of limited means who oversees an older person’s care, virus or not.

As you’ve undoubtedly read, the elderly are the group most likely to die from a coronavirus infection. And many caregivers, particularly those tending to an elderly spouse, are not young themselves.

Washington state has seen more coronavirus deaths than any other state. The virus raced through Seattle-area nursing homes. This is a reminder that senior housing, while providing the elderly with companionship and generally high levels of professional oversight, also puts medically vulnerable people in close proximity, enabling the virus to spread.

The high-quality facilities are on alert. A health care worker at a nursing home in Connecticut told me that the employees have been given strict rules that include avoiding, if feasible, their own loved ones outside the job.

In some ways, my friend is in an ideal situation. Social distancing comes with being not very mobile and not living with others. His paid helpers work for a very reputable caregiving service, which I feel confident is taking all possible precautions. But there’s no guarantee that one of the caregivers’ children won’t pass the virus to them.

And what about me? So far, knock wood. I’m healthy and following the recommended hand-washing and crowd avoidance, but I don’t live in an isolation cell. I go to the drugstore. I shop for food.

Last week, my old friend’s bathroom needed a serious plumbing repair. On several days, guys came over to fix the problem. They’re OK, right?

Life would be a lot easier if the United States were to provide coronavirus testing for everyone who wants it. We would know whether to stay away from others. We’ll probably have to wait weeks to get there. Less rich countries (South Korea, for example) are able to conduct mass testing.

In an awesome show of incompetence, the Trump administration failed to replace the White House official who was in charge of responding to pandemics. And it fired the pandemic team. Amazingly, that slop-job dismantling of our public health infrastructure came not long after the H1N1 epidemic had killed over 12,000 Americans.

What can we who monitor the well-being of our elderly do to keep the howling menace from coming inside? We can do our best — that’s all. The elders in our charge are already imperiled by the flu. We must live with our reality.

America hasn’t reached the dread phase seen in Italy, where overburdened hospitals are preparing to turn away the sickest and oldest. We’re discussing it, though. And for we who watch over old people, not to mention our charges themselves, the stress just got crazy. This is truly uncharted territory.

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Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop.

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