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COVID-19 presents novel challenges for dementia patients
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COVID-19 presents novel challenges for dementia patients

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The many issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic can pose unique challenges for those living with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

Those who are experiencing cognitive decline can face a variety of issues even if they don't develop the coronavirus, said Julie Collins, Northwest Indiana program manager for the Alzheimer's Association Greater Indiana Chapter.

“We’ve heard from many family caregivers who’ve said they’ve noticed a decline in their loved one’s health due to social isolation,” Collins said. “In some cases, separation from family and friends during the pandemic can escalate dementia-related behaviors, including confusion, wandering and aggression.”

She said depression and anxiety as well as increased risks of cardiovascular, cognitive and mental health problems can be associated with social isolation.

“Cognitive impairment may impede communication, especially virtually, thus further contributing to social isolation and potentially causing more rapid cognitive decline,” Collins said.

Though dementia doesn't make people more susceptible to COVID-19, certain related behaviors may increase risk, Collins said. “For example, people with dementia may forget to wash their hands or take other recommended precautions.”

Because most are older than 65, dementia patients can face more complications from the coronavirus, Collins said. That's why it's essential to take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19

Caregivers can turn to signage to help promote hand washing and other methods to prevent the coronavirus.

“You may also hang a reminder sign near the sink or on the door that they will see before they exit the bathroom,” Collins said. “You may present the message using words or a photo reminder.”

Caregivers should pay close attention to sudden or sustained behavior changes in their loved one, Collins advised.

“While signs of distress or discomfort don’t necessarily indicate a serious condition like COVID-19, people living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias may not be able to communicate if they aren’t feeling well,” Collins said. “Even when people living with Alzheimer’s cannot communicate verbally, their actions may be sending a message.”

Masks, which are proven to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in public,  can be confusing and challenging for those with Alzheimer's and dementia.

When assisting a loved one during difficult situations like putting on a mask, it's essential to keep them comfortable.

“Only show positive emotions if the person living with dementia is feeling an increased level of stress,” Collins said. “Since it may be more difficult to communicate with words, using your eyes and gentle gestures may be helpful when communicating. Being patient and understanding will go a long way in this situation.”

Caregivers might need to try different masks to find the one that works best for the patient.

“There are many styles and fabrics of masks, so experiment if the first is not a great fit,” Collins said.

And there is help for caregivers.

“The Alzheimer’s Association offers a free, 24/7 helpline staffed with licensed social workers who can assist with any question related to dementia — big or small,” Collins said. “I like to tell people, ‘you don’t have to stare at the ceiling at 2:00 in the morning.’”

COVID-19 has created an additional need for the helpline at 800-272-3900.

“During this pandemic, calls to the helpline have remained steady, but call times have increased,” Collins said. “That’s because caregivers are facing more difficult challenges.”

The Alzheimer's Association also has education programs and support groups available online and over the phone for caregivers.

“Many of our education programs offer strategies for the common challenges caregivers face as the disease progresses, such as understanding dementia-related behavior and communicating with the person when they lose the ability to use words to express themselves,” Collins said. 

Visit alz.org/Indiana for information about programs and other offerings from the Alzheimer's Association Greater Indiana Chapter. Call the Alzheimer's Association helpline at 800-272-3900.

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