In Ginger Feiock's first photograph of her husband, Arlo, he's an eighth-grader with a paper heart bearing their initials pinned to his shirt. The sweethearts went on to be homecoming queen and king at their South Dakota high school before heading off to the same college and marrying after graduation.
Six decades after becoming Arlo's bride, Ginger assumed a new role. In 2018, he was diagnosed with dementia and she became his caregiver.
"My goodness, I was not prepared for this," she said. "I knew nothing about this disease and the adjustments you have to make as it progresses."
To be closer to their daughter, the couple, both 83, moved 90 miles across northern Minnesota from Bemidji to Thief River Falls in February. One month later Ginger began isolating with a partner whose needs she doesn't always understand.
"It's a challenge," she sighed. "I love to quilt and anticipated joining a quilting group. We can't go to church, which is important to us. My husband shadows me and needs my attention."
Feiock found guidance, community and relief in the virtual world. She connected with the Caregiver Support & Respite program offered in about half of the state's rural counties through Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS).
Before COVID-19, the program offered face-to-face coaching, classes and support groups for family caregivers for those living with memory loss. During the pandemic, the menu of offerings has shifted online.
Many older caregivers lack technical skills or computers, so they're lent tablets and given training to use them. Caregivers who started logging in for appointments with social workers or to attend online peer gatherings are now tapping their tablets to make other social connections.
"This opens up the world for them. Once they get comfortable they can make virtual doctor appointments and order groceries online," said Tara Giese, director of caregiver support for LSS. "We have one woman in her 80s who is the caregiver for her husband and was able to FaceTime with her sister, who she hadn't seen for 18 years. Another was able to watch her granddaughter's wedding."
The connections take on greater significance as many caregivers lose their informal supports. Family and friends who are fearful of spreading the coronavirus often stop dropping in to offer companionship or provide respite.
"That caregiver will sacrifice a lot to take care of the loved one, even neglecting their own well-being," Giese said. "There's a lot at stake. The caregiver has to stay healthy to keep the care recipient at home."
Ginger Feiock used her tablet to complete a six-session class aimed at developing strategies to manage her husband's care. She also looks forward to her weekly virtual support group attended by five other older wives.
"It's so good to be with others in the same situation. It's an outlet to share my feelings," she said. "It's a demanding situation but it's giving me insights. I can be a better caregiver for Arlo if I know how to hold it together."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.