In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, physical distancing has become a new and necessary element in our daily lives. However, physical distancing does not have to mean social isolation. This is especially important for the almost eight million Canadians who act as caregivers to loved ones living with mental and/or physical disabilities, chronic diseases, or age-related challenges (1).
Despite being a fulfilling role with many positives, caregiving is no easy task. Whether you yourself are a caregiver or know someone who is, you’re likely aware of the impact this role can have on the mental, emotional, physical, and social aspects of a carer’s life (2;3). Elevated levels of stress, anxiety, and depression are just a few examples of how the challenges of the role can manifest in the health of those providing the care (2;4;5).
Fortunately, support services exist to aid caregivers in carrying out their tasks with greater skill and confidence, while increasing social connections to help decrease the physical and mental burden. Even in times such as these, when accessing in-person services may not be possible, caregivers still don’t have to go it alone. How, you ask? Well, caregivers can take solace in the fact that internet-based strategies exist as an alternative to in-person services.
But, are these internet-based strategies effective for caregivers, and what are the features of successful online supports? One systematic review that looked at caregivers of older adults with stroke, cancer, traumatic brain injury, and dementia sought to answer these questions (2).
What the research tells us
This review focused on informal caregivers—most often a spouse, partner, or child—as opposed to those who provide care as part of their occupation. The strategies included within the review fell under three main categories of internet-based support—education strategies, self-help strategies (e.g., support programs that aimed to build certain skills for caregivers or provided tailored materials via online modules), and human-supported strategies (e.g., programs or websites that had educational/skill building elements but always included professional and/or peer support). Internet-based strategies differed by:
- the types of techniques used (e.g., instructions, social support, time management);
- the style of communication used (e.g., text, videos, graphics, PowerPoint slides);
- whether or not interactive online activities were used and the activity type (e.g., questionnaires, homework, exercises, quizzes, apps); and
- whether and how guidance and feedback from professionals and/or peers was incorporated (e.g., via email, message boards/forums, apps).
Ultimately, the review found that internet-based strategies, specifically self-help and human-supported strategies, can improve mental well-being in caregivers of older adults. Depression, anxiety, and caregiver strain were a few areas where some benefits were seen. Successful strategies seemed to be those that included: timely professional advice or peer support accessed remotely, interactive online activities, and instructions to assist caregivers with changing their behaviours (2).
In these tumultuous times, caregivers don’t have to cope on their own. If you’re a caregiver for an older adult, seeking out available internet-based support services seems to be a valid option, especially when in-person services are limited or unavailable. When looking for online strategies to use, be sure to consider what kinds of features they offer.