As a faculty member in Auburn’s Marriage and Family Therapy program, part of Josh Novak’s research investigates relationship dynamics during acute sickness such as cold and flu. He applies what he’s learned about disease to COVID-19, how it may affect relationships and offers helpful resources that couples can take advantage of during this time.
A paper that was published earlier this year focused on men’s perceptions of how they and their female partners experienced the cold/flu. This study specifically found that—at least in heterosexual and traditional relationship types—that men and women experience and express symptoms differently. The men had a harder time recognizing and being in touch with their own physical symptoms and bodily sensations, whereas their female partners could describe a range of symptoms and what they felt in more vivid detail.
Most notably, men reported that their wives did not have the luxury of taking care of themselves or taking it easy—they had to manage household responsibilities, chores and childrearing. In contrast, men felt they could rest and take a break from their work duties. These findings support previous research on illness and division of labor—women resume household duties quicker because their partners are not helping or picking up the slack. Finally, the couples who had better outcomes and felt closer reported that they saw sickness as a time to bond and unite them as a couple
How would COVID-19 compare to more common sickness in the context of relationship dynamics?
The general cold and flu might shift household and relationship dynamics for 7-10 days (and maybe only 3-4 days of the worst symptoms), and for the most part, can be managed because it comes around every year for a limited time, but COVID-19 is extending the changes for much longer.
In couples where one or both partners test positive, couples are having to figure out how to manage symptoms and balance household and work. In contrast to the above study, a man might not be minimizing their own symptoms or his partner might be maximizing his symptoms in contrast to a general cold or flu. For couples who are working from home, gone is the typical 9 to 5-workday and work has to be broken up throughout the day. Expectations about work productivity have to be readjusted and partners now have to juggle more family time amidst work. For those out of work, it is putting even more strain and perhaps testing their relationship and their ability to communicate and problem solve effectively. Couples who may have faced some relational difficulties before the pandemic might be facing more turbulence now, although I am seeing some softening amongst couples where they now are focusing more on their relationship.
Perhaps more importantly, couples are having to figure out basic needs first, and it makes sense that it is the priority. However, couples should balance “task talk” with “relational talk.” In addition to discussing how to balance the checkbook and the protocol for getting groceries and essentials, couples should still find time to have some quality “we” time—beyond quality family time.
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Kyle Kostelecky, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Auburn and an expert in gerontology, explains the challenges of caring for the elderly during quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As with Influenza A and B, the novel coronavirus is more likely found in people with lower immune systems and underlying conditions that limit the body’s ability to cope with and recover from illness.
There is increasing evidence that intergenerational programming, where older adults are spending quality and quantity time with younger generations, is significantly improving the well-being of all generations. So how can we keep these connections going without jeopardizing everyone’s health?
Make sure you know the facts. Check with the CDC and local public health offices for accurate and current information. We are all frightened and concerned during uncertain times. Also, minimize watching, reading or listening to the news, instead limiting yourself to certain periods of the day for a limited time. Constantly seeking information and updates may add to anxiety and stress for you and those around you.
Keep washing those hands! Practice exceptional hygiene and if you need to spend time together, make sure it is in a place/facility with excellent cleanliness.
When anyone is feeling sick or under the weather, don’t take any chances. Stay away from each other until everyone is fully recovered from their illness.
Try lots of different ways to communicate, old and new. Phones, social media, online meeting platforms like Zoom or Skype, FaceTime, email or texts. These are great ways to connect when we have access to these methods.
An interesting idea connected to a plain old phone call is to watch a TV show together and talk about it while you are on the phone during commercial breaks. If you want your children to connect with their grandparents, have them read to grandma and grandpa over the phone. This is great practice for emerging readers. Grandpa and grandma can read to them too.
When you do connect, whether it is in person or via another method, share stories and pictures. This feels a bit more intimate and makes an emotional connection that can be satisfying and lasting. There is often great peace when you can return to a photo and be reminded of a conversation or story.
Finally, when the time comes for you to check in to just see how your older adult family member is doing, ask specific questions like, “What did you do today?” or “What are your plans for tomorrow?” Just a simple, “How are you doing?” may elicit less helpful and meaningful conversations. Making these phone calls will likely help you feel more connected too.
Our loved one may be in a nursing home or care facility and we can’t visit them. Check with the facility staff and ask if you can make regular visits—this will give your family member something to look forward to. Also, do what you can to support and honor those caring for your older family member like send thank you notes, provide some much needed supplies or simply be kind to them when you talk with them, recognizing the difficulty of their job working in this environment.
We know that older adults, especially those in isolation and with cognitive decline/dementia, may become more anxious, angry, stressed, agitated and withdrawn during self- or mandatory quarantine. You may be able to recognize increasing stress in your loved one if they seem to exhibit irrational fear about other things besides the coronavirus, tell you they aren’t sleeping as well or can’t seem to concentrate like they used to, their chronic health conditions seem to be worsening or they show signs of increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs (even over-the-counter medications like pain reliever). You and your older family should be talking with people you both trust about your concerns and how each of you are feeling. Taking care of emotional health is just as important during times like these.
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Higher learning institutions across the nation are moving to remote learning and canceling events to limit the spread of COVID-19. Last week, Auburn University announced its transition to remote instruction until April 10. Auburn University Human Development and Family Studies Professor Angela Wiley shares advice on balancing a new remote learning environment with constant news updates. Wiley is head of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Human Sciences at Auburn.
In and of itself, “stress” is not necessarily negative. Stress can motivate us to seek solutions and learn new strategies. Excessive stress, especially when we have little or no control, can cause problems for health, mental and physical. However, humans are capable of great resilience and can learn to manage new challenges with excellent results. The sudden shift to a remote learning environment can be difficult. But it will prepare students to be resourceful and flexible, characteristics that can be a benefit in their future work environments.
Advice to students on handling stress and anxiety during this time:
Stay connected.Staying in touch with friends and loved ones can help things feel normal and let you share feelings. Social support is a critical resource for easing stress, especially during the college years. Brainstorm ways to keep social relationships close: using apps to video chat, enjoying online interactive games with friends or binging the same series and discussing by text or phone. And remember the virus will pass and this time of separation will end.
Keep things in perspective. Keep re-centering yourself. Remember, the number of confirmed infections in the U.S. is low compared to the population. There is a lot of media attention on the virus and its spread and there should be, but for the majority of people, it is unlikely to pose a major, lasting threat. Still, it’s important to stop the threat before it continues and the current measures are aimed at prevention.
Get the facts but don’t overdose. You will want to find credible sources you can trust. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a webpage dedicated to information on the coronavirus outbreak. Auburn University has a central website dedicated to updated information about COVID-19 and the university’s responses (aub.ie/coronavirus). You may also find useful and updated information from your county or state public health agencies. Limit the time that you spend seeking information, though. It’s easy to become overwhelmed. Maybe check once a day and then move on to other things.
Seek additional help. If you feel scared, anxious, worried, angry, sleepless and exhausted, know you’re not alone, many people are feeling the same. But if you feel overwhelmed (for example, panic attacks, nervousness, lingering depression) by feelings that negatively affect your school work or social relationships, reach out to a mental health professional. A call to the family doctor might be a good first step. There is a national hotline that can locate help in local communities: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
As authorities around the world work to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Auburn University College of Human Sciences Associate Professor and Interior Design Program Coordinator Lindsay Tan discusses how the design of certain places can affect the disease’s transmission. Tan leads the Design Ecology Lab and the newly established College of Human Sciences Pathogen Lab, in which students will investigate how disease-causing pathogens are spread throughout indoor environments. In the wake of the alarm over the coronavirus, Tan said there are design elements that can help contain the outbreak.
We spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors. Our health is influenced by everything we touch in these interior environments. Being exposed to common viruses and bacteria in this way can help to build up our immune system. When it comes to more severe diseases, though, it is critical to have interior environments that can protect our health by reducing pathogen transmission.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some can cause familiar illnesses like the common cold but some also cause more severe diseases like SARS – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The current coronavirus outbreak is caused by one member of this family that we’ve never seen before, and that means that we don’t necessarily have all the answers about how this novel virus behaves. Based on what we know so far, one of the ways the virus can be spread is by touching contaminated surfaces.Designers also play a key role in outbreaks like this. Some materials transfer pathogens more effectively than others. Some materials are even inherently antimicrobial, meaning they can weaken or kill the disease-causing organism before it can infect anyone.
The growing urban population presents what we call a “wicked problem” – one that is multilayered and complex, and can’t be fixed with one magical solution. As a design ecologist, my research involves mapping wicked problems like this across the framework of the built environment to find and implement design interventions – alterations to protect health and improve quality of life. In hospital rooms, which are also relatively small, interior designers choose materials that can be easily cleaned and sterilized – materials like sheet vinyl floors with rolled edges, laminated countertops and stainless steel sinks with offset drains. We have much more rigorous cleaning protocols, too. In spaces designed to handle infectious diseases, we even install specialized air filtration and pressurization systems to ensure that harmful agents cannot move from room to room.
This case serves to remind us why interior designers and other professionals of the built environment – apparel designers, architectural designers and product designers – must always look beyond the obvious, to anticipate risks and respond to threats through better designs that proactively protect our health and safety.
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