It’s difficult to overstate the pandemic’s disorienting disruption to our daily lives. Since March, Texans have weathered lockdown measures, extended separation from loved ones in long-term care facilities and reckoned with a future plagued with uncertainty. Perhaps none have felt this weight as acutely as family caregivers.
Even before COVID-19 burst into our news cycles, many caregivers reported feeling highly strained and overwhelmed. AARP’s Valuing the Invaluable report finds that caregivers face an increased risk of chronic loneliness. And for those with unreliable or limited internet access, the pandemic’s lockdown measures and social restrictions only exacerbate these issues.
We know that many Texans, especially those in rural areas, lack sufficient access to broadband (high-speed connection to the Internet) and telehealth options for medical care. Shockingly, around 927,000 Texans lack Internet connectivity at home, according to a recent report from the Governor’s Broadband Development Council.
Family caregivers need reliable internet access to ensure that all who need to seek medical assistance can do so from the safety of their homes through telehealth. The ability to consult with health care professionals on their care partner’s needs is particularly essential during the pandemic, when in-person visits carry their own risks.
Texas is home to 3.3 million unpaid family caregivers who play an indispensable role in our communities. Their invaluable work — such as providing much-needed companionship, managing medications and helping with important health tasks such as wound care — allows Texans to age with dignity and amounts to an estimated 3.1 billion hours of unpaid care. That’s a colossal contribution valued at $35.5 billion annually.
People of all ages are among the ranks of family caregivers, according to AARP research. Even some teenagers are caregivers, and some folks age 75 or older are caring for their loved ones. By providing billions of dollars’ worth of caregiving services each year, they dramatically reduce the demands on our nation’s health care system and make an extraordinary contribution to the quality of life to their loved ones.
Those who provide this heartfelt care face new challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic. To stay up to date on valuable pandemic resources and information, caregivers require reliable online access — particularly as they often provide care to older Texans, more susceptible to the disease’s detrimental outcomes.
Unfortunately, research suggests one in four people over age 65 lacks access to broadband internet. This not only hinders their access to telemedicine appointments and other sources of information, but it deprives caregivers of a source of emotional support. Through online communications, caregivers can experience critical social connection, while still protecting the safety of themselves and their care partners at a time when in-person activities contribute to the virus’ spread.
Deficient access to these services can make a bad situation worse for caregivers, the selfless people serving our most vulnerable. That’s why we call on Texas lawmakers to act to fill these gaps. When the Texas Legislature convenes in January, it’s vital that improving access to broadband and telehealth services be at the forefront — a step toward addressing the needs of unpaid family caregivers.
Tran is the director of AARP Texas.
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