Indo Sjoekje F. Sas(a)bone, LCSW, EMHA, encourages resiliency in her mother and aunt during the COVID-19 pandemic with strategies that can help Indo families and loved ones.
The Calm Before the Rona Storm
Pre-pandemic, my family titles were “technology repair person,” “phone call mediator,” “forms completer,” “‘can you get something on your way here’ retriever,” or “garage-emptier.” As a first-generation American Indo, I have held these titles since I was young. Appointed the family ambassador, they delegated me to ask salespersons questions, and I was considered a “computer expert” after my first computer class in 7th grade. I was later assigned to review and complete important documents, troubleshoot with utility companies, and install WIFI-required equipment. My qualifications were, “You grew up in American schools. You know this better.“
My family is capable of independently achieving all the tasks I described above. They are “knap”, “heel flink”, and courageous. They acquired multilingual/bicultural skillsets to acclimate, integrate, and immerse themselves in America successfully.
So maybe I’m assigned these tasks because they trust that I’ll do it the “right way.” OR, maybe the tasks are their way of ensuring a visit from me. ORRRR, maybe they don’t want to do them. Hmmm… perhaps a combination of the three? Regardless of the reason, if I don’t comply with proper respect, I will face consequences. And I have faithfully done so, consistently and overly-obediently … until last year.
Pandemic Panic Ensues
In March 2020, I witnessed the pandemic’s quickly accelerating pace with trepidation. I was in Sacramento’s capitol building for the annual “Association of California State Supervisors Lobby Days.” On day 1, we greeted each senator and assemblyperson with the “elbow bump” gesture. On day 2, I observed signs protecting the giant bronze bear’s perimeter in front of the Governor’s office public entrance. The pandemic was getting progressively more severe. The flight home was the last time I traveled.
My focus immediately shifted to the safety of my mom and her sister, both in their 80s. Hearing a friend’s appalling story of how her senior father was aggressively shoved by someone frantically snatching a loaf of bread spiked my concerns. My protective nature motivated my stockpiling supplies for us. I witnessed society become ill-mannered, ill-considered and inhumane as panic survival mode took hold. My fear of exposing my family to COVID-19 drove my angst. You see, I am an admissions frontline worker at Patton State Hospital. This hospital ultimately held the highest number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities among California’s five state hospitals (Nelson, 2021).
Overall, my mom and tante understood my work in admissions. They also supported public health precautions. Understanding support was quickly deserted, however, when their cable or cell phones weren’t “working” or important-looking letters arrived. Urgent demands that I take immediate care of the issue ensued. We live, however, in three different Southern California counties, an hour’s drive apart. My father and uncle passed away in 2016 and 2018, respectively, and I have no siblings or blood relatives in America. My mom and tante don’t drive the freeways therefore, I traditionally drive one to see the other. The pandemic’s restrictions complicated things. And by complicated, I mean remotely managing dramatic catastrophic reactions.
Professionally, I knew these frantic reactions had nothing to do with me and were misappropriated projections from their past experiences. They were not yet ten years old, migrating between Holland and Germany during WWII. The residual trauma deeply affected their reactions to 2020’s pandemic. When Governor Newsom initiated the “stay-at-home” orders, my mom concerningly said, “It’s just like the war when we had forced curfews.” Triggered fear of being forgotten and abandoned nullified my loyalty and reliability in their eyes. As I established unwavering boundaries to mitigate potential exposure from working on quarantine units, their aggressive agitation and guilt trips intensified. “Other people’s children help their families.” “You never help! Why can’t you come over here!?” “I have no one!” “No one helps me!“
Guilt tactics weren’t unique to the pandemic. My pre-COVID-19 typical rebuttals involved angrily defending my integrity. My credentials were a litany of examples collected over the years, examples that were forgotten or minimized in the moment of perceived crisis. Conversely, my COVID-19 counterarguments sourced CDC guidelines from our Public Health Department. Furthermore, I found myself having to emotionally match their frenzied energy level to make them accept my logic and reasoning. I explained insufferable symptoms, afflicted people dying alone due to prohibited visitor policies, and reiterating how I couldn’t forgive myself should I infect them. “No, no..Don’t come over. Be careful, lieve! I love you!” This roller coaster of emotions frequently repeated throughout the pandemic, becoming increasingly more laborious with birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.
As we reach almost a year of social distancing and safe practices, the three of us are emotionally exhausted. The psychological toll COVID-19 has on our spirits segues into experiencing what Falkner (2020) identifies as “caution (aka crisis) fatigue.” The main symptom of caution fatigue is losing sensitivity or a sense of urgency for ongoing safe practices. There is an impending feeling of wanting the pandemic to be over. I felt this several times. I missed visiting them and having a cup of coffee with gebak regardless of any assigned tasks.
In time, my mom and I got creative to battle caution fatigue. We video chatted, wore face shields/double masks, and would meet for a “socially distant” birthday picnic. My tante was more particular, inventing inflexible barriers which were unnecessary challenging. Respectfully, I refused to accommodate contraindicated protective public health practices. My tante critically responded to my boundaries through tantrums, riddled with insults. Ultimately, she accepted the circumstances while I maintained loving integrity.
“In vivo” connections involved ordering dinners and flowers from delivery apps, buying necessities online, mailing grocery gift cards, and surprising them with nostalgic gifts and photos to brighten their spirits. My mom would order from the Dutch store to cheer on her younger sister and me. We’d maintain regular phone contact to promote family cohesion as best we could. Approximations are incomparable to in-person contact; however, COVID-19 doesn’t care about our caution fatigue; it just continues its lethal path.
How Do We Manage?
Hoare (2015) stated seniors demonstrate high resilience levels with some strategies in place, contrary to our loved ones’ catastrophizing reactions.
Mindfulness meditation can help with positive coping strategies. This strategy is effective interference to prevent a spiraled panic. Mindfulness meditation, which entails “being present”, helps to regulate emotions. Some examples are:
- “Tell me something you discovered today.”
- “Tell me something funny about your (pets).”
- “So what’s that show about?”
- “Did you listen to any music that put you in a good mood?”
- “What did you make for dinner?”
- “What did you work on today?”
- “How are the flowers doing?”
This intervention briefly distracts your loved one from the pandemic’s undetermined end date. It helps break up any rumination that contributes to feeling the hopelessness we all experienced.
Hoare (2015) also introduced cognitive reframing, a useful technique that considers positive and hopeful alternatives. Reinterpreting and reframing the meaning of the current situation helped my mom and tante live in the space of gratitude. The antonym of “catastrophic” is “blessed.” Eventually, the sisters expressed gratitude for our family triad and our health. When they’d hear my stories of coworkers or their families getting infected, coupled with their knowledge of acquaintances infected with COVID-19, my mom and tante would become reasonable again.
Sense of Mastery
Finally, Hoare (2015) mentions the importance of a sense of mastery. Generally speaking, multi-generation Americans find the cultural obligations experienced by first-generation Americans of various countries unrelatable. Out of good intentions, guilt, and conflict avoidance, I enabled dependency under the veil of Indo-cultural family obligation. I robbed my mom and tante of the practice of persistence. The pandemic forced healthier boundaries and offered them a sense of mastery, self-empowerment, and courage to face typically overwhelming challenges. Low frustration tolerance exists due to anxiety surfacing from ambiguity, possibly rooted in WWII traumatic events. Named after their mother, I’d offer them praise as my Oma would when they’d accomplish something once thought as an impossible achievement. I’d lovingly express my pride and offer them my genuine admiration and excitement. They learned to trust themselves, acknowledge their abilities, and reflected when family and friends were impressed by their independence and skill sets during their youth.
The pandemic challenges us on various levels. State-issued regulations and unfamiliar established boundaries may trigger exaggerated responses from loved ones. Frustration and hopelessness could lead to caution fatigue for all involved. Love, patience, and creativity is our best asset to approximate connections with our loved ones as we reassure resilience and empower mastery. Soon enough, we’ll resume visits with coffee, gebak, and plenty of assignments. Meanwhile, my message to all Indos is, please know you are all doing your best….. Sterkte Iedereen!
- Badre, D. (2021). How We Can Deal with ‘Pandemic Fatigue’: The first step is to understand that it’s not just about exhaustion or tiredness—or depleting a mental resource
- Falkner, A. (2020). Caution Fatigue: What to Do When Your Loved Ones Are Tired of Social Distancing
- Hoare, C. (2015). Resilience in the Elderly
- Koepp, R. (2021). How Is the Pandemic Affecting the Mental Health of Seniors?
- Nelson, J. (2021). Patton State Hospital inoculates 65% of patients to help stem deadly COVID-19 outbreak
- Zeltner, B. (2021). Isolation, Lack Of Technology Are Concerns For Seniors During Pandemic
TIP wants to know….. What did you think of the author’s coping techniques? Did your family try any of these useful techniques during COVID? What other techniques worked for you? Leave your comments below!