How to support overseas friends and family dealing with COVID
Life is largely back to normal in Australia but, unfortunately, many other countries are still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. If you have loved ones living there, here’s how you can help.
Rewind a year or so and it probably felt like everybody was in it together as far as the coronavirus pandemic was concerned. But now, if you’ve got loved ones living in a country where widespread lockdowns, restrictions and still-large COVID numbers are an everyday thing, it might not feel like that anymore. In fact, it probably hasn’t for quite some time.
“There’s certainly a sense of disconnection now because it’s quite different here in Australia compared to what people living in many other countries are experiencing,” says Dr Sarah Bentley from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology and co-author of Together Apart: The Psychology of COVID-19.
“We want to be in this together but the reality now is that we aren’t.”
If that’s left you wondering how you can support friends and family overseas, given the challenge of both distance and very different lived experiences, you’re not alone. These tips and suggestions might help.
Maintain regular contact
This will vary depending on the nature of your relationship, but Bentley says something as simple as being in touch frequently and on a regular basis can make a big difference.
“Remembering to check in about something that happened last week lets them know you care, gives them a sense of continuity and will help them feel more connected to you,” she says.
“It doesn’t have to be a lengthy conversation every time – and sending text messages, photos and even funny memes between phone calls can also be really effective for maintaining contact. But it’s frequency that will ensure you’re woven into the fabric of their lives and their weekly existence.”
Talk about everyday things
Taking time to understand what life is like for them right now is important but try to talk about other things as well.
“It can be easy and even quite natural to talk only about news headlines at times like this,” says Bentley.
“But it’s important to ask about everyday domestic things, too, like, ‘How’s the cat?’ and ‘What’s your garden like at the moment?’
“Conversations are much more intimate when you talk about things that are unique and personal to each other’s lives, and it also reminds people that they’re not a statistic. They’re still living their own life regardless of the bigger picture, a life that you know about and are interested in.”
Share details about your life
With family of her own living in the UK, Bentley has personal experience about how awkward this might feel right now.
“If I take a call from overseas when I’m out shopping or sitting in a busy cafe and they ask what all the noise is, it seems a bit embarrassing because it’s a reminder of how different life is in Australia,” she says.
But not only does regulating when you chat and what you share risk creating an even bigger sense of disconnection, it inhibits authentic communication, too.
“Even though you might not be dealing with coronavirus-related issues right now, you’ll still have things in your life that you want or need to talk about,” Bentley explains.
“And actually, what we know is that we feel good when we’re able to help others, so providing your loved one with opportunities to feel like they can support you too can be really beneficial. It’s not about diminishing their difficulties, it’s about fostering a sense of reciprocal connection.”
Provide practical help
The internet makes this possible from the other side of the world.
“It might be organising a grocery shop to be delivered or ordering some new supplies for a hobby or interest as a surprise,” says Bentley.
“If you’re concerned about a friend or family member and feel like they’d benefit from seeking professional support, after talking to them about it, you could even research their local contacts and links online if they seem too overwhelmed to know where to start. Gestures like that can make life easier.”
Look after yourself
It’s been more than a year since the pandemic began so if you are supporting others, you’ve probably been doing it for some time.
“On top of the fact that we’ve still been impacted by the pandemic here in Australia, that can be draining,” says Bentley, who recommends prioritising self-care with as much conviction as we do caring for others.
“Looking after yourself is a way of supporting others, because when you’re struggling it’s hard to be helpful to anyone else. Check in with yourself regularly, particularly immediately after you’ve been in touch with a loved one overseas.
“Do you feel drained? Helpless? Overly worried? It doesn’t mean you should quit staying in touch, but you might need to manage the conversations, whether that’s making them shorter or choosing a better time.”
For example, if you call just before bed due to time differences but then get a bad night’s sleep as a result, you might need to work out an alternative.
And all the usual self-care strategies apply.
“As well as getting enough sleep, try to eat well, exercise regularly, do things you enjoy and make sure you’re putting time into your social connections here in Australia,” adds Bentley.