By Jodi Peterson, OTR/L, CAPS, HMOTA
COVID-19, also known as a strain of the coronavirus, is a highly contagious viral disease. It is transmitted from person to person through droplets in the air from primarily coughing or sneezing. To date, there have been 3.8 million cases worldwide, with nearly 300,000 deaths reported so far. Moderate to severe cases can include fever, malaise, difficulty breathing and profound weakness. Others have also experienced stiff joints, loss of taste and smell, mental and emotional issues. If you are caring for someone with known or suspected COVID-19, here are some tips from a registered occupational therapist.
The Quarantine Environment
Whether your loved one has been discharged from the hospital or not, they may have to follow quarantine strategies for a certain amount of time.
Limit your contact by providing a separate bedroom and bathroom if available, ideally on the first floor. Stairs are more dangerous when we are fatigued or weak, both of which could be factors for a COVID survivors.
Ask the loved one to wear a mask when you are present in the room, and you wear a mask as well to protect yourself.
Keep disinfecting supplies at hand inside the room and outside. Also consider disposable eating utensils and garbage bags to confine contaminated waste; then wear gloves when handling used linens or trash, and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds afterward, using friction.
Caring for them mentally
Some people infected with COVID 19, especially after a prolonged hospitalization can have trouble with problem solving and memory. You can help them to stay oriented by reviewing the day of the week/month/year and recent events. Give positive messages and reminders that they are safe, they are loved, and they are healing.
Writing down information is extremely helpful if memory is now an issue. Using a notebook or small whiteboard may work well. Things to note can include the day and date, medication schedules and purposes, and any questions your loved one may have.
Help them establish a routine to their day, including keeping day and night routines. Naps are fine and even expected initially but help them maintain their circadian rhythm by keeping curtains open and lights on during the day, and keeping the room cool and dark at night.
Caring for them emotionally
Your loved one may be grieving the loss of others or they could be grappling with survivors guilt from remaining alive while others did not in similar circumstances. Try to be patient; there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and no timeline.
The sense of being alone, feeling helpless or coming near death can be terribly upsetting. Offer to listen but never pressure them to talk. Give positive messages and reminders that they are safe, they are loved, and they are healing.
Once the quarantine time is past, provide time for relaxation and socialization. This cuts down on isolation and gives a feeling of normalcy.
Be their advocate by consulting with their doctor or mental health professional if these feelings persist or become worse. Counselling works!
Caring for them physically
Provide plenty of access to liquids and encouragement to drink. Dehydration can occur quickly and many times without the feeling of being thirsty, so they should drink routinely. Dehydration can cause weakness, headache, confusion, dizziness upon standing and potentially a fall.
Make sure they have a way to communicate with you, in case they have a sudden need. Try texting, a simple bell, or intercom system. Even an old two-way radio can work.
You may need to monitor them, especially if they seem to become more confused or lethargic. Using a baby monitor with video is one option that allows you to have peace of mind at a safe distance. Signs to watch for include increased difficulty in breathing, thinking, or discoloration of the fingers or toes. If you are worried, call their health care professional immediately, or dial 9-1-1.
Make time and places for rest during tasks. For example, sitting on a chair at the bathroom sink with all supplies set up ahead of time for their morning routine is much easier than standing.
They may need more physical assistance than usual, and this could lead to injury for them or you. Difficulty getting into the house or upstairs, trouble getting out of bed, problems with feeding or toileting themselves could occur. Please reach out to an occupational therapist! We are specialists at matching an individuals needs and abilities with their environment, guiding you in specific devices or techniques as needed, whether long or short term.
Caring for you
Caring for a loved one who is recovering from an illness is a beautiful act. Please make sure you take care of you too! Get rest, eat well and focus on the good things going on around you. If care needs are overwhelming, reach out for help and support. Only when you are healthy and well can you help others.
Jodi Peterson has joyfully been an occupational therapist for over 20 years in various settings. She is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist, and is an active member of the national Home Modification Occupational Therapy Alliance (HMOTA).She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, youngest daughter and a myriad of animals.