CHICO, Calif. – As of Feb. 2, 2021, in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Covid-tracking map, there are now more than 443,000 deaths across the country. Many of those are seniors.
As the rate of deaths from Covid hit the county, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in a recent report, indicates the country is facing a shortage of nurses with that projection impacting communities across the country.
Action News Now Morning Anchor Julia Yarbough recently spoke with a facility caregiver about the challenges of caring for elders during the pandemic; work that has been compounded by staff shortages as well as the personal and emotional toll of losing clients.
All of this, as the demands on caregivers, are increasing and anticipated to become even more demanding in the years to come.
The caregiver who spoke did not wish to be identified, but tells Yarbough, working in the healthcare field during Covid-19, can "make or break anyone."
The challenges, they explain go beyond the threat of Covid and include the emotional aspects of elders, being isolated from loved ones and others.
"They are in community homes and we have to quarantine them. They are no longer allowed to have visitors,” explains the caregiver.
“You're told to spend the least amount of time as possible in the room with them. They feel useless and that feeling alone can deteriorate someone's physical health.”
How severe is the loss to our nation’s elders? AARP created what is called a Covid Dashboard, tracking real-time information on client and staff deaths within senior living facilities nationwide.
As of mid-January, 136,000 seniors were reported dead from the coronavirus and related illness. The loss of so many seniors is already being felt by those caring for those seniors.
Projections indicate our country is set to experience a boom in the population of seniors in the coming years. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2030, the number of those over age 65 will swell to 82-million. In California, the numbers of those 85 and older is the fastest-growing population segment in the state.
At the very time, the nursing industry is experiencing shortages, those trained to administer such care are already under strain; from care staff stretched thin, to the emotional losses being experienced. Experts say, regardless, front-line workers will be asked to shoulder an even greater burden, master additional skills, and be more prepared for the years ahead.
Jennie Chin Hansen has spent her career as a registered nurse. She is also a member of the Task Force for California’s Master Plan for Aging. She says the challenges nurses face will increase in the coming years not only from the long-term emotional impacts from the pandemic but also shouldering the increased demands of caring for an aging population.
"Likely 40% will have dementia or cognitive loss and that requires a level of training and education and skill-building that will be important to do over this next decade,” explains Hansen.
The training required by nurses and other caregivers will extend to having an emotional bandwidth to deal with continual loss. Across the country, those caring for our most vulnerable are already feeling the impacts.
Dr. Toni Miles is an epidemiologist with the University of Georgia. She studies bereavement, with much of her work in nursing homes.
"The people who work there themselves are dying of Covid so you've got a double-whammy,” explains Dr. Miles. “You've got people who cared for the seniors and when the seniors die they are injured in the process. Right now it's hitting people the hardest who are connected to these older adults."
Yarbough talked at length with the local caregiver. They say during a normal year, they may lose four to five elders in their charge. During 2020, they say they processed the loss of close to 20.
"I've seen so many patients go [die] when they had vital signs within all perimeters and they are otherwise ‘by the book’ healthy and should not be dying.”
Yarbough asked what impact that loss is having.
“It's just really hard to see all these people dying and you are trained as a caregiver to try and help them,” says the caregiver. “It is really hard when you work one shift and you take care of somebody and they're fine when you leave but then you come back the next day and they are no longer there. Because they have died.”
Has caregiving during the Covid pandemic made this professional reconsider the caregiving/nursing career?
"It has made me want to be the best nurse I could possibly think of and there's nowhere else on earth I would rather be than at a hospital or a home trying to help somebody,” they say.
This caregiver likens the feeling of loss to that of an employee spending hours, maybe even days on a project. They say imagine if you left the almost finished project on your desk but returned the next day to find someone had destroyed your work.
They say it creates a feeling of questioning, why keep making the effort, because your project, in this case, a human being, is going to die, so why bother?
Difficult emotions which this caregiver says tests their faith on a daily basis, but says the desire to help others is stronger.
*This story was produced with support from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations, and the RRF Foundation for Aging*