WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has thrust many Americans into the role of caring for an older or disabled loved one for the first time, a new poll finds.
And caregivers on the whole say they’re encountering unexpected risks and demands as a result of the virus, requiring greater time and effort. Still, they're more worried about the relatives and friends they are helping than about themselves.
The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll finds that 17% of Americans say they are providing ongoing caregiving, part of an informal volunteer corps. About 1 in 10 caregivers has begun since the virus outbreak, and about half of those say they are providing care specifically because of the pandemic.
For Chad Reese, of Canton, Ohio, caregiving has coincided with the pandemic. His mother-in-law moved in with his family shortly before the outbreak as she was being treated for advanced breast cancer. “It was a natural thing for us to do,” said Reese, technology director for a museum.
What didn't feel quite right is that they couldn't accompany his mother-in-law to cancer treatments because of coronavirus protocols. “A lot of things were lost in translation,” said Reese. “One of us has to stay in the car. That’s still going on to this day.”
Among those who already were providing care, 36% say their responsibilities have increased. Added responsibilities are more keenly felt by caregivers who've lost jobs or income in the pandemic. Forty-two percent of those under financial strain said their caregiving responsibilities increased, compared with 25% of those who are holding their own economically.
The poll finds that 1 in 20 caregivers has provided care to someone infected with COVID-19. When unpacked, that number reveals some social disparities. While 11% of nonwhite caregivers say they've cared for someone who got infected, just 2% of white caregivers have. Part of an ongoing series, the survey was funded by The SCAN Foundation, a nonprofit focused on quality-of-life issues for elders.
The fear of unwittingly passing on the virus has become a major preoccupation for caregivers. In the poll, 44% were extremely or very concerned about risks to the person they care for, versus 28% who said the same about their own risks.
“I stay awake at night and toss and turn,” said Seth Peters, a university associate professor in Utah. He's a one-man logistics operation for his 78-year-old widowed mother, who lives alone in her own home, more cloistered than ever because of the virus. In the rest of his life, Peters has interaction with college students, and his two young kids are themselves in school.
When he goes to see his mother, "she is even afraid to let me pet the dog,” said Peters.
“I don't even know if that is possible, to give it to the dog,” he added, referring to the virus.
Nora Voytko, who lives near Austin, Texas, helps care for her adult son-in-law, who is disabled due to muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease that causes progressive weakness and loss of muscle. The disease has also compromised his breathing.