‘We don’t have a plan’: Coronavirus adds pressure to caregivers sandwiched between seniors and kids

This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Read the original there. 

Jennifer Mendez often checks on her 79-year-old grandmother, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, before or after her shift at a hair salon in Hamilton Square, N.J., bringing her groceries and other necessities.

Mendez, who has two young sons at home, is part of the “sandwich generation” — people, increasingly in their 30s and 40s, who are responsible for bringing up their children and caring for aging family members. According to data from the Pew Research Center, 12% of parents are in this generation. A 2007 survey by the American Psychological Association also found that nearly 40% of sandwich generation caregivers report extreme levels of stress.

As coronavirus increases in the Philadelphia area, experts say that sandwich generation caregivers are in a uniquely difficult situation. Their parents or grandparents are often in the group most at risk for coronavirus-related illness, and there’s reason to think that kids, though not likely to suffer severe consequences from infection, may be helping amplify transmission. The American Health Care Association has said that “routine social visits are strongly discouraged” at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

“If there was a mandatory quarantine, I have no plan on how I would continue care for my grandmother,” said Mendez, who is 36 and lives in Burlington Township. “She’s my main concern. She’s in the group that’s dying from this. I’m definitely worried about her.”

More Financial Stress

Even before Gov. Phil Murphy ordered on Monday that N.J. schools close, Mendez said that if her 6-year-old son’s school was unavailable for a significant period of time, it would be a “real financial setback.”

“That would send me into hysteria, for sure,” she said before the statewide closure. “In these days, I don’t really know any family that doesn’t need two incomes. It would be great if I could get some type of supplement to help, but it’s hard because I work on commission.”

Dual caregivers already shoulder significant financial burdens — a T. Rowe Price survey found that nearly a third of them spend more than $3,000 a month caring for an aging parent or relative and are significantly more likely to pull from retirement and college savings to afford it.

Philadelphia passed a paid sick-leave law in 2015, but many workers still don’t know about it, according to a recent Temple University report. People who work for an employer with more than nine workers are entitled to paid sick days, while people who work for an employer with fewer than 10 employees are entitled to unpaid sick days.

In New Jersey, most workers, full time, part time and temporary, get 40 hours of sick leave a year. The law also allows New Jersey residents to use earned sick time to care for immediate family members, such as spouses, grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren.

“We don’t have the policies and care infrastructure in place to deal with this crisis,” said Charlotte Dodge, a senior policy associate with Caring Across Generations, a national initiative to change the long-term care system in the country. “A lot of people are having to make decisions about whether to go to work, or whether to put the health of their loved ones first. It brings to light how critical this is for people.”

Dodge and her husband, who live in Montgomery County in Maryland, have two young children. Her mother, a 68-year-old hospice nurse whose work also could put her in harm’s way, lives with them. Although Dodge has the flexibility to work from home and can care for her kids, she said that more workplaces should proactively communicate to their employees that their health and safety come first.

“It’s a chance to offer more flexibility and assure someone that their financial security won’t be put at risk because they’re putting their health first,” Dodge said. “Encourage people to speak up if they’re feeling ill. Tell them to stay home.”

Refraining from panic

For Suzanne Simons, her 75-year-old mother, who has lupus, is her biggest concern right now. Simons, a 37-year-old Realtor in Voorhees, also cares for her two children — an 18-month-old daughter and a newborn son.

“My mom has a weakened immune system, and so does my son, being 5 weeks old,” Simons said. “And there’s no vaccine, no other way to really take precautions besides what we are already doing, like washing our hands and wiping things down.”

Lisa Paganelli King, 36, a stay-at-home mom to a 14-year-old son and a 15-month-old daughter, has similar concerns about her father, who has been undergoing chemotherapy for more than a year. King, who has a background in nursing and lives in Mount Laurel, disconnects her father’s chemotherapy pump every two weeks so he doesn’t have to drive to Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. She said she wasn’t concerned about a potential outbreak at first, but now is worried.

“One of my biggest areas of concern is that some people aren’t taking it very seriously and saying that it’s media hype,” King said. “I don’t think they realize that they can be sick and not know they have it, and pass it to someone. I don’t know if my dad would have a chance if he got this, so when I see people sharing stuff about media hype on Facebook, I’m like, ‘No, please take it seriously, my parents are so important to me.’”

Simons said she and her mother are not panicking. Rather, they are spending their energy on precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“All I really can do is hope for the best,” Simons said. “If we don’t feel good, then we’ll stay home. Of course, I don’t want my mom or my kids to get it, but I don’t want to keep everyone cooped up.”

Dodge said that right now is a good time to check in with family caregivers, if you have one in your life.

“Recognize that there are little things you can do to help that person, like picking up groceries or a child from school,” she said. “Offering up support in any way you can, while still taking precautions for yourself and your family, goes a long way.”