As cases of COVID-19 skyrocket, our healthcare system is overburdened, with first responders and healthcare professionals stretched to the limit.  If our future might include additional COVID-19-like threats, how will our healthcare workforce adapt to these harsh new realities, and more importantly, how will they continue to care for our most vulnerable?

The one constant in the middle of this chaos, who is present even before the first responder, is the family caregiver.  Think about it: Vulnerable people feel the most protected in the sanctity of their homes by family. When hospital ERs closed, surgeries were postponed, and nursing homes and hourly supports were untenable, family leaned in.

Unpaid family caregivers reduce the strain on our healthcare system.  They administer medication; manage doctor’s appointments; help with bathing, dressing and wound care; monitor oxygen levels and assist with at-home dialysis treatments.

According to AARP, more than 40 million Americans provided the equivalent of nearly $470 billion in healthcare services to family members before coronavirus, often 24/7 and typically without compensation for years. Two years ago, the bi-partisan Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage (RAISE) Family Caregivers Act, was passed, requiring that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) strategize how to support full-time, unpaid family caregivers.  Passage of this law was an important milestone.

But while rules are being fashioned at the federal level, our state must focus on this locally present resource so that those at home have resources to sustain their loved ones’ healthcare needs, especially during a pandemic like COVID-19.  Effectively leveraging family caregivers in this way is good for the economy, good for our healthcare system, and it makes sense from a policy perspective.

Connecticut’s current Adult Family Living (AFL) program has been around since 2013 and is a valuable and cost-effective long-term care option.  AFL supports family caregivers, with a team of nurses and social workers, in caring for loved ones who are at risk of being placed in a long-term care facility.

Connecticut’s Department of Social Services, in response to the pandemic, sought flexibility from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to allow for fully remote support in the AFL program to protect families and healthcare workers.   As a result, AFL providers that use secure technology to provide clinical, psychosocial support and financial assistance have made care accessible and consistent during these challenging times. This has resulted in reductions in fears and anxiety among family caregivers about being isolated due to stay-at-home orders.

We will ultimately return to the workplace after the pandemic curve has flattened, and we now understand that flattening that curve means staying at home.  Family caregivers are the resource that makes this possible for our residents with the most complex needs.  Let’s make certain that they are a valued member of the healthcare team moving forward.

Ross Davis is the State Director for Caregiver Homes of Connecticut, an Adult Family Living provider that supports families throughout Connecticut.

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