Caring for Sick Family & NOT Getting Sick Yourself
The pandemic is far from over, despite promising signs in May and June of lower trends. The virus is raging back worldwide as autumn arrives and school is back in session (in some format).
And things won’t be getting better — not with flu season around the corner.
When my husband and 21-year-old daughter came down with COVID-19, we had a lot to learn on the fly, especially in hopes of keeping myself and my high-school daughter from getting sick too.
Here are some of the things we did that worked.
HUGE CAVEAT: I’m very aware that we are in a position that many aren’t. Among other things, we live in a house with a finished basement, with comforts like a fridge down there. Those and other things allowed a level of isolation that not everyone can do. I hope something here is still valuable.
Any time a trip to the basement was required, so was a mask. I was careful to not touch anything I didn’t have to, and not to go anywhere in the basement I didn’t need to.
That meant my husband brought food to our sick daughter’s bedroom. I didn’t venture farther into the basement than the table (see below).
Our healthy daughter’s bedroom is downstairs, but she was upstairs with me for this period. If she needed to fetch something from her room, she, too, masked up, touched nothing until she got into her room, came right back upstairs, then sanitized right away.
I kept a mask specifically for such trips in a specific location. This mask was separate from the ones in my purse, car, etc. so I always had one easily within reach. The mask was always next to a bottle of hand sanitizer — a visual reminder to sanitize right after returning the mask to its spot, whether that was with hand sanitizer or by washing my hands.
Next to the hand sanitizer bottle, I kept a bottle of hand lotion to help a bit with the extra drying my hands were undergoing.
To decrease my time in the basement and the chances of my getting sick, we used a table near the base of the stairs where I left meals and any other items they needed.
They would then leave anything to be brought upstairs on the table, like used dishes. I think the table as exchange spot, and my not going anywhere else in the basement, was key to limiting my exposure.
Breakfast, Lunch, & Snacks
The sick ones always had plenty food and was available that could be eaten as breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
For the most part, these foods didn’t require refrigeration, like apples and bananas. Some prepackaged foods were useful as well — such as breakfast and protein bars. As the sick ones’ sense of taste left them, salty foods like potato chips helped them eat something without it tasting gross.
Having readily available food made it easy for them to grab something to eat whenever they felt they could eat. It significantly lightened the load on me for cooking for them, and it significantly decreased how many virus-laden dishes I had to handle.
I made a point of cooking dinner most days, though sometimes we got delivered takeout because dang, this whole thing was stressful, and I didn’t have it in me to cook every night.
One challenge here is that my sick daughter already had some dietary restrictions, so finding something to cook for everyone (including me and my other daughter, upstairs) that she could stand to eat and was able to eat could be tricky.
For some meals, she and her dad got different meals, especially if she asked for some canned soup to be warmed up, and he got a grilled cheese sandwich.
All in all, simplicity was the order of the day. Chicken and salmon salad sandwiches, soups, quesadillas, tacos, and other simple meals were definitely a must.
Dishes, especially utensils that go into mouths, are likely to carry the virus and therefore required careful handling.
I’m lucky in having a dishwasher, and I made good use of it during our isolation period. I made sure to not leave the sick ones’ dishes on the counter or in the sink. I loaded them into the dishwasher right away — then washed my hands thoroughly.
Some use of paper plates and plastic utensils was helpful too. They were convenient for times when the sick ones needed an extra fork or spoon for something. Bonus: they could be thrown away, right along with any virus on them.
They understandably collected quite a bit of garbage during isolation. They each had a garbage sack nearby, with a roll of more if they needed another. If I found a garbage bag on the pick-up/drop-off table, I carried it to the outside garbage bin right away.
This was one piece we didn’t think to anticipate, but when you reach the week mark, you start to run out of things like underwear. How to wash their clothes without getting us upstairs sick?
We settled on a relatively simple solution:
I brought a plastic tub downstairs. They then loaded up their dirty laundry into the tub and placed it at the base of the stairs.
We let it sit there for over 24 hours, in the hopes that any virus on them wouldn’t survive that long.
Only then did I bring the tub upstairs and load the washing machine, all while wearing a mask. I figured that after washing my hands, changing my clothes would be in order too, as an extra precaution.
I quickly had to figure out how to get groceries delivered because the house was on lockdown for two weeks. Stores across the country offer delivery, but not all do.
My tips: Check the website of your personal favorite store. Be aware that most often delivery at least a day into the future, not same day. Others might do 2-hour delivery for an additional fee, but remember to check hours: if they close at 9:00 PM and you place an order at 7:01PM, you won’t be getting it until tomorrow.
Also note that you’ll pay whatever prices are in effect on the day of delivery, not on the day you order. I got both ends of this: items that ended up cheaper because they went on sale before delivery, and ones that cost more because a sale ended before delivery.
Produce can be tricky to buy. You might need to state the number of bananas at one store but by pound at another. In one order, I asked for one pound of tomatoes and got just one tomato. (It weighed 6 oz.)
Be sure to check for any delivery fees, and if there’s the possibility of misunderstanding, take advantage of the “notes” section before placing your order. If you order anything that might be in a glass bottle or that could be fragile, look for those items before bringing your order into the house. Otherwise, you might inadvertently crush your eggs or shatter a bottle of dressing. (That last one makes quite a mess.)
This is the single biggest thing we didn’t plan for, but it became critical: staying in touch while the sick ones had to be isolated.
Even my husband, very much an introvert, was lonely. After a tele-appointment with our doctor, he updated me while standing at the bottom of the stairs, and I stood at the top.
The update turned into half an hour of talking about nothing in particular; I could just tell that he needed to interact with someone. When the fatigue got to be too much, he thanked me for talking and went back to lie down.
As an extrovert, our daughter needed it just as much or more. She, too, wanted to talk at a distance after online classes and doing her job remotely. She was too tired to stand at the base of the stairs, so she sat down and talked to me for over an hour, despite the exhaustion and pain.
She just needed to have connection.
While face-to-face connection was huge, I made a point of texting them and otherwise trying to stay in touch at a distance, too.
Supporting the Supporter — Yourself
As the caregiver, you’re under a lot of pressure. This is not normal, and even if you aren’t wiping brows and administering ibuprofen, you’re still caring for sick loved ones — love ones that, for all you know, could end up in the hospital or worse. Despite all precautions, you could get sick too. It’s hard. It’s stressful.
And it’s normal to not be okay.
One day, taking care of myself included ice cream in my grocery order. On one hard night, it meant streaming a beloved movie because I needed the laughs.
If you’re wondering how to help a family battling COVID, by all means, offer to run errands, bring by food, etc. And reach out to the ones afflicted with the illness.
But also remember those caring for the sick. I had one person specifically ask what my husband and daughter needed — would funny memes every day help? There was no mention about what hey, what did I need? And that fact was a bit of a heartbreaker.
One day during our lockdown, on hearing a knock on the door, I assumed I’d open it to find a delivered package or something similar.
Instead, I found Sarah, one of my best friends in the whole world, who’d found out we had COVID in the house and knew I had to be struggling.
She is immune compromised and has taken what many see as extreme measures to stay safe. Yet there she was, standing at a distance off my porch, wearing a mask, but she was there.
For years, we met weekly to write together. Then the pandemic struck. I hadn’t seen her in person in seven months. We talked, socially distanced, for several minutes. We laughed and connected in a way you can only in person.
She’d brought a thoughtful gift — the kind that only someone who knows me well would know I’d love. And I don’t live in her neighborhood. Visiting me was a drive, not an offhand idea but something she had to plan. And that fact alone meant the world.
My husband, knowing my mental health was taking a hit, went online and ordered me a one-pound box of See’s chocolates. And the box arrived in a box so well insulated and cooled that every single piece inside was in perfect condition.
We got lucky. My high schooler and I never got the virus (though she spent her 18th birthday under lockdown, which was brutal). There’s no way to know for sure whether I wouldn’t have gotten it without our precautions, but I’m glad we took them anyway. And I’m glad we all got tested.
Our doctor said that my husband and 21YO’s cases were “moderate” and the worst non-hospitalized cases he’s had in his practice so far — a detail I’m glad I didn’t fully know until they were out of the woods.
Today, they’re both mostly recovered. The only remaining symptoms are their sense of taste not being 100% back and severe fatigue, but even those are improving. Whether either of them will end up with future health effects we don’t know about remains to be seen.
And if anyone is wondering, the minute there’s a safe vaccine, I’ll be in line. I care too much about Sarah, my senior-aged parents, my organ-recipient nephew, and others to stand back and not do what I can to end this nightmare.