Dementia Caregiving During Coronavirus
Caring for an older adult with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia has become even more challenging in the wake of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
In addition to helping with bathing, dressing, eating, and other daily living activities, caregivers must find ways to reduce an older adult’s exposure to the coronavirus.
Most likely, dementia does not increase a person’s risk of developing COVID-19. However, dementia-related behaviors, being over 65 years old, and having severe underlying health conditions are factors that may increase the risk of developing COVID-19.
Without a doubt, the coronavirus has placed more responsibilities on both paid and non-paid caregivers. But, medical experts and public health officials offer advice on how family caregivers can take care of their elderly loved ones, and professional caregivers can take care of their clients.
Keeping Calm in the Midst of a Pandemic
Some parts of the country are slowly beginning to reopen but senior centers, respite daycare centers, and other places seniors frequently remain closed. Older adults may question why they should continue to stay home. Any disappointments, changes, or disruptions to daily routines can cause people living with dementia to become confused or anxious about their situation.
Dr. Beth Rush, a neuropsychologist at the Mayo Clinic, advises caregivers to “keep the environment calm” if the person becomes nervous or agitated, and have a plan in place should the situation become too hard to manage.
Whether caregivers should discuss COVID-19 or explain the reasons for sheltering in place depends on the person’s condition.
According to Dr. Joseph Sirven, a neurologist at Mayo Clinic, it’s best to avoid discussing COVID-19 with those in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. However, a person with mild cognitive impairment who processes information relatively well may be able to discuss COVID-19 restrictions, and the importance of taking precautions, such as hand-washing, to avoid coronavirus infection.
Practice Safe Hygiene
Caregivers can emphasize the importance of handwashing and other safe hygiene practices with their elderly loved ones or clients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says hand washing is one of the best protections against the coronavirus.
Since it’s not likely that adults with dementia will remember to wash their hands regularly, the Alzheimer’s Association recommends that caregivers:
- Post signs in the bathroom, the kitchen sink, and in other places reminding them to wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds. Using a timer can help keep track of the time.
- Demonstrate thorough hand washing.
- Use hand sanitizer that has at least 60 percent alcohol as an alternative to hand washing.
Since germs can also spread from contaminated surfaces, the CDC advises caregivers to clean surfaces and objects as another way of avoiding coronavirus infection.
Check Visitors at the Door
The COVID-19 outbreak gave caregivers the added responsibility of placing restrictions on who comes into the home of their loved one or client.
For example, some people living with dementia receive health services that require providers to come into the home. When it comes to home health providers, the Alzheimer’s Association has several recommendations for caregivers to follow:
- Ask the home health agency to explain its protocols to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
- Check the health care provider’s temperature before entering into the home. Do not allow a person with a temperature over 100.4° to enter the home.
- Ask the health care provider if he or she has been recently exposed to anyone who has COVID-19.
- Ask the health care provider to wear a mask.
- Make sure the health care provider washes his or her hands when they arrive and throughout the provider’s time in the home.
Taking extra precautions are necessary since visitors can increase the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Overcoming the Challenges of Social Distancing
Public health officials say social distancing helps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but this means keeping older adults pretty much indoors. So, having older adults exercise (as directed by their doctors) is key to their physical, mental, and emotional health during the pandemic.
According to the National Institute on Aging, exercise programs can improve the mood and potentially diminish cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
Besides exercise, caregivers can help older adults stay connected with family members and friends through regular telephone calls or video visits. During the pandemic, family members who made in-person visits have stood outside of their loved one’s home or long-term care facility to sing or wave banners and signs with greetings on them.
Besides connecting with loved ones and friends, caregivers and older adults can do other activities, such as:
- Gardening or light house cleaning
- Going for walks
- Watching classic TV shows or movies
- Planning meals, creating shopping lists, or a list of personal items to order
- Reading books
- Taking virtual tours (via a desktop computer or smartphone) to museums, different countries, national parks, and other well-known places
- Taking online courses
- Working crossword or jigsaw puzzles
- Listening to music
The type of activity the person engages in will depend on the person’s interests and how far dementia has progressed.
Keep a Flexible Daily Routine
Needless to say, the coronavirus pandemic has upended everyone’s schedule. Unfortunately, sudden disruption of a daily routine is particularly difficult for people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia who need structure and stability. So, it is important for caregivers to keep a routine.
Caregivers can discuss planning a daily schedule with the older adult and ask for suggestions from other relatives involved in the person’s care. The routine, however, should be flexible enough for spontaneous activities.
Maintaining flexibility is important because as the disease progresses, the person’s abilities to do different things will change, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Most importantly, routine provides the person living with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia a sense of familiarity at a time when the need for stability and comfort is at a premium.