HUDSON — Vicki Martinez struggles to find an uninterrupted moment at the end of the day to use a CBD facemask or listen to the birds off her lanai.
The 65-year-old has taken care of her husband, Lee, 70, for the past three years as his Alzheimer’s and dementia have progressed. Before the coronavirus pandemic, she went to weekly networking meetings for her jewelry business and took her husband to car shows.
Now she hardly leaves their Hudson home or his side.
“I just get angry in general because I feel like my whole life has just been ripped out from under me,” Martinez said. “But then I look at him, and I think his life’s been ripped out from under him, too.”
For both, it’s hard to fight the frustration with no visitors and no family nearby.
Martinez is one of more than 2.9 million people in Florida who care for loved ones with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other ailments, according to AARP. For many who care for ailing loved ones, the pandemic-induced isolation has increased the stress and loneliness they felt before COVID-19 hit in March.
Many of these caregivers don’t have nearby family, so they alone have to navigate their loved ones’ finances, medical needs, medicines and care for their home, said Eileen Poiley, director of education at the University of South Florida Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute.
“Now they have to manage COVID and manage a whole new aspect of health,” Poiley said. “It’s going to increase their level of stress, because they have so much to deal with, as well as the isolation.”
Many caregivers and their loved ones are in the age group most vulnerable to the coronavirus, so they are unable to go out, said Kathleen Winters, director of the Alzheimer’s Family Organization, a nonprofit based in Spring Hill.
Winters’ organization hosts 48 support groups for caregivers across eight Florida counties, which are hosting socially distant and virtual meetings. Caregivers who were going to support groups before the pandemic likely were comfortable joining meetings via Zoom, she said, but those who were new or didn’t know people in the groups were less likely to participate during the pandemic-induced lockdown.
Winters’ office is receiving more calls from caregivers who simply want to talk to someone or get quick advice. Prior to COVID-19, the office might get one or two calls a week, now they’re getting them everyday, Winters said.
Caregivers in Hillsborough County can reach out to the Senior Connection Center in Tampa for information about state or federal funding for respite care. The amount varies by the individual’s need, said Patty Suarez, spokesperson for the center.
The Area Agency on Aging Pasco-Pinellas runs a caregiver support program for residents who care for loved ones, said executive director Ann Marie Winter. The agency assigns each caller to a specialist who assesses their needs and sets up assistance. The program also provides services, which could include mental health counseling for the caregiver.
There’s been an increase in demand for the program, Winter said. The office has hired an additional specialist, expanding service to another 50 people.
“But that’s not enough to address the waitlist,” she said. “There’s just not enough funding to address the needs of caregivers.”
In 2020, the agency has served 149 caregivers, according to Winter. But 283 caregivers were on the waiting list as of Nov. 18 — 93 in Pasco County and 190 in Pinellas County.
The agency’s specialists point out respite care agencies that allow the caregiver to go shopping, sit on the beach or “get some perspective and a moment to relax,” she said.
Winter’s office also helps place seniors with dementia-related disorders in day care programs that allow their caregivers time to run errands and spend a few hours alone a few days a week. Those programs are opening back up, she said.
“But many of those caregivers were home with their seniors for a really long time during the lockdown,” she said.
Caregivers may call the state Area Agencies on Aging at 1-800-963-5337. Visit the Alzheimer’s Family Organization online at alzheimersfamily.org or call the office at 352- 616-0170. The USF Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute caregiver resources are at health.usf.edu/medicine/byrd/caregivers.
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