Q & A with JFS Orlando Clinical Director Ashlyn Douglass-Barnes, LCSW
Have you seen an increase in activity during the pandemic?
Overall, our community has seen a sharp increase in people requesting JFS counselling services. We’ve been lucky to be able to hire more therapists to answer the needs of our community. Just today I saw someone asking for recommendations on social media. I don’t ever remember seeing people in such a public space asking openly for referrals. I think that speaks to a wider acceptance of mental health as being just as important as physical health. Specifically, we’ve seen more caregivers reaching out to help address the increased isolation and stress during the pandemic. In “normal times” caregivers don’t have enough respite and count on others for a few hours while they run some errands or tend to their personal needs.
What are some common concerns clients have during this time?
Now there is even less respite for caregivers due to COVID and the concerns of involving another person who could expose their loved one to the virus. Professional respite or support care is also thin due to illness and burnout, so where families that had financial means to hire temporary help may not be able to find providers.
Decision fatigue and burnout is also a common concern, where every decision must be thought out and evaluated with the pros & cons of exposure during the pandemic. Situations like taking Mom to the doctor’s office or ER knowing that someone could expose them to COVID or trying to treat her at home without physical medical intervention. This puts a lot of stress on caregivers and may put them in positions where they must make decisions that could have catastrophic consequences no matter what they decide. Throw into the mix the people around them, might second guess or question their decisions, against creating more isolation or distance to those that could be part of their normal support network.
What are some of your recommended methods for caregivers to avoid getting burnout?
This is much easier said than done, but take care of your own needs as well as your loved ones. This can be very tough, because the needs of your loved ones seem to be more immediate and can be very demanding, time consuming, and emotionally and physically exhausting. I usually have to remind caregivers that “you cannot do it all” and recognize that burnout or neglecting your physical health will impact your ability to care for your loved one. Taking care of yourself is part of caring for your loved one, you have to be healthy as well. It’s important that you take care of your body and mind. Don’t cancel the doctor’s appointments, cook a good nutritional meal for yourself, or if possible treat yourself to what you want to eat. Try to move your body, nothing formal, but just go outside and walk or watch videos on your dream destinations while walking around the house. Play your favorite word game on your phone, or just calling a friend to talk about something besides caregiving can be a great help. It’s doesn’t need to be big chunks of time. Just micro-breaks, even a few moments to step away from the role of caregiving, to remind yourself to be an individual outside that space. We want you to still be connected with the world outside of your role as a caregiver. Like I said before, it might seem tough because it can feel like caregiving has become your entire life and all you have to talk about. Try joining a group on social media for your other interests, like hobbies or similar interests. It is also a good idea to try to find a community of caregivers that you can connect with, either in the community formally or on social media informally.
As a caregiver yourself to your clients, what do you enjoy the most about being a caregiver?
That’s an interesting question. I think if you asked most therapists if we’re caregivers at work, we would say no. We’re trained so that we don’t take on the role of caregiver, which can create a dependence. But we can all agree we’re in the helping profession and are helping professionals. It’s amazing to get to bear witness to people changing their lives, sometimes slowly and painfully, but still changing for the better. I have so much gratitude towards my clients for allowing me on their journey and them choosing me to help them with that. I remember when I worked in court ordered drug treatment center and I felt I wasn’t having an impact on any of my clients. Years later I ran into an old client and she told me how this very small comment I made during our one of our sessions changed her entire perspective, only after a few months after leaving treatment. There’s an amazing thing that happens in therapy, where we have the opportunity to plant some seeds that can be used when needed in the future. Outside of work, there was a situation where I was a caregiver to a dying family member. I wasn’t just happy that I was able to be there for my dear family member in their final stages of life, but also for those that were be left after the family member passing. It brought us all much closer and now I know we can all rely on each other in times of need.
How do you as a therapist handle the constant stresses of being a caregiver?
I do have to protect my time sometimes. I work a lot, so there are times where it can feel like to those around me all I do is work, so I carve out time that is just for my husband and I, I won’t schedule anything within my control there. I enlist the same boundaries with my work phone. Setting reasonable boundaries can be tough, especially when you supervise 10 therapists, all with different schedules and issues that don’t usually happen during the normal workday. I have a lot of open communication with those around me when I need help or if I need compassion or grace. I do also carve out time for myself, as cliche as it sounds. I try not to remember everyone’s problems are not all my responsibility and I allow others to help me when they can. Again, this can be smaller tasks, like letting your spouse to make dinner or getting take out instead. Probably the most important point on dealing with the constant stressors of being a professional caregiver is to avoid taking my clients problems to bed with me and to have faith that they can and will get the help they need do that with or without me. Protecting my “brain space” is another way that I take care of myself.
What are some of your favorite outlets or de-stressors?
I understand why my mother (who had 5 children) always had a bath in the evenings, it was her alone time where no one else really has access to her. I can certainly relate to that. But I also try to find the smaller things, like reaching out to friends to chat, especially not about our work or the profession, Outside of COVID, I enjoy traveling and going to tropical places, I do feel peace looking out on crystal clear blue Caribbean waters. So much so that I’ve thought about setting up a tiki hut with Wi-Fi to do JFS telehealth session from there. But then again, where would I go to de-stress?
Jewish Family Services of Greater Orlando (JFS Orlando) offers a FAMILY of services to assist and support you as you heal from caregiver burnout, or other difficulties you may have experienced during the pandemic.