Sept. 16, 2020 -- Women have long been informal or unpaid caregivers for children, adults, or people with chronic illnesses or disabilities. In fact, two-thirds of caregivers in the United States are women, according to the CDC, which puts them at greater risk of poor physical and mental health.
Public health requirements during the pandemic, such as mental health, can also make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety -- which, in turn, may increase the risk to caregivers. Couple that with the fact that many caregivers are also essential workers and in industries impacted financially by the coronavirus epidemic, and the situation is ripe for serious health consequences.
The CDC released new practical guidance last week on how women facing unique challenges during the epidemic can care for both themselves and others.
“Balancing more than one role can be hard. When you’re responsible for taking care of yourself and others, the fear and anxiety about this new disease and what can happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children,” Pattie Tucker, DrPH, director of the CDC’s Office of Women’s Health, Office of Minority Health and Health Equity in Atlanta, said during a virtual CDC update.
Tucker emphasized that women need to focus on “self-care” first so they can take care of others. The CDC recommends caregivers protect themselves and others from COVID-19; eat foods that are safe and healthy; take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate; avoid excess alcohol; and exercise regularly while social distancing.
Caregivers can manage their stress by connecting with others, allowing themselves time to unwind, taking a break from ongoing COVID-19 news coverage, and talking to people they trust about their concerns and feelings, Tucker said.
If they need extra support, they can seek out support groups, counseling, and other resources on coping with stress.
Essential Workers and Lost Income
“Employed women do not abandon their caregiving responsibilities -- they tend to cope with the combined pressures of caring for others, needing income, relying on inadequate public programs, and having fewer employment-related benefits,” Tucker said.
Essential workers, in particular, are under more stress during the epidemic due to working long hours, often under tough conditions, she said. “They have less time and energy to be a caregiver, and may expose household members to COVID-19.”
More women than men work in essential professions as nurses, teachers, child care workers, and grocery store cashiers serving the public. More are also emergency workers and first responders, according to the CDC guidance. In addition, many women are both primary caregivers and primary wage earners for their households.
Some of these professions, especially those in the retail sector, have been hit hard by the epidemic, which may cause extra stress. “A larger percentage of women than men report worrying about losing income due to job loss or reduced hours because of COVID-19,” Tucker said.
Losing income as well as health insurance and other benefits can result in serious financial hardship for people who are both primary caregivers and primary wage earners for their households.
Caregivers facing financial hardship can contact local social service organizations, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) directory to find food benefits in their state, free meals for kids, and free meals for older adults through programs like Meals on Wheels.
Caregivers can also find resources on spending and money management.