Challenges for Those With Dementia During COVID-19
There are 5.8 million Americans age 65 and older living with Alzheimer's, according to the Alzheimer's Association. In addition, more than 16 million Americans provide unpaid care for those seniors. Of those caregivers, nearly 60 percent say the emotional stress of their role is high during normal times. Those numbers are likely higher during the pandemic.
Beth Kallmyer, a social worker and vice president of care and support for the Alzheimer's Association, said caregivers should be aware that people living with dementia may not understand what is going on, but they react to people's stress levels. She emphasized that those caring for their seniors at home should have a plan in place in case the usual caregiver gets sick. These types of conversations will allow families to decide how the care plan will be handled in different scenarios.
Families should carefully observe their seniors for any symptoms. A person with dementia may not be unable to communicate his symptoms if he is not feeling well. Kallmyer says, "Caregivers need to watch for a sudden change in cognition (not a more gradual change), because it could indicate a fever."
In addition, those living with dementia may find the pandemic's disruption to their routine difficult to handle. For example, Shelly is the primary caregiver for her husband, Michael, who is in the moderate stages of Alzheimer's and still lives at home. Michael's therapeutic social program had to close its doors, and he gets confused watching the news on TV. Shelly's caregiver support group has had to switch to online meetings. Shelly laments, “Dealing with someone with dementia in an unprecedented crisis — there’s just no road map for that.”
In another example, Erynn is part of a care team for her elder mother living with Alzheimer's disease. Previously, Erynn and her siblings would have a rotating schedule so their mother would get social interaction and give the full-time caregiver a weekend break. Now, with COVID-19, that has stopped and Erynn and her siblings have no physical contact with their mother. Erynn's mother doesn't understand what is going on or why they can't have long visits. Her full-time caregiver encourages hand-washing and hygiene, but this is difficult for those living with Alzheimer's to comprehend.
In other cases, family members are unable to see their loved ones. Ken's wife of 67 years has been in a care facility for three years. Due to the current restrictions, Ken says, "I literally have not seen her now for 10 days." Before the ban on visitors, Ken would visit his wife three times a day to feed her meals. He is grateful that she can still receive care in his absence but misses his frequent visits with her.
While dementia does not increase the risk of developing coronavirus, they are typically over 65 and may have underlying health conditions that lead to more serious outcomes if they contract the virus. “Limiting visitors seems really harsh and difficult, but it limits who is exposed to the virus, and in the end, it’s for everyone’s best interest even though it’s psychologically distressing,” Kallmyer said.
It's also important that caregivers practice self-care. Caregivers can do things like take a break, go for a walk, or do some meditation to decrease their stress level and anxiety. With places being closed (like libraries and movies), it's important to find control in the midst of chaos.
COVID-19 has brought unexpected challenges and heartbreak for many people across the world. By staying vigilant to your elder's health (and your own!), you can keep some of the stress and anxiety at bay.
Source: ‘A minute later, she forgets.’ Pandemic brings new challenges when a loved one has dementia by Cara Rosenbloom