While self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic is rough on anyone’s mental health, those with memory loss issues are suffering more than ever.
A large portion of the local memory loss population, meaning those with Alzheimer’s and dementia, are living at home either restricted from their routine care or having to be cared for more than ever by family members.
It’s a level of routine and access to the memory loss community that helps not only patients but caregivers. But now that the coronavirus has limited the amount of in-home support provided by nurses, many people are finding themselves caring for their loved ones around the clock.
“Caregivers are family members in the home or close by and so for those caregivers who are providing care in the middle or late stages of the disease, they may have been having access to home care communities which are now disrupted,” said Katie McDonough, director of programs and services for the Southeastern Virginia Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “They’re used to having access to socialization programs that are now closed.”
The changes in care and social activities have created a number of new stressors on caregivers and patients.
“When we talk about behaviors in general, COVID aside, it’s really no different than you and I,” McDonough said. “It’s no different than a healthy person who is stressed out, but we have reactions and can rationalize them. With demolition, those cognitive abilities are impaired.”
While those with memory loss might not be able to express their emotions depending on their stage of disease, they’re still experiencing feelings of anxiety and confusion now that their everyday lives have been disrupted.
“So if you take an average person, someone who does not have [memory loss], stress has cognitive impacts,” McDonough said. “It can make it more difficult for us to sleep, can affect our mood, and the same is true for someone living with dementia whether in the early or late stages.”
Christine Jensen, director of health services research for Riverside’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health, said people with memory loss do better with routines so even if they aren’t aware of the news or their social situation, they’re still feeling that sense of change in their everyday lives.
However, there’s a difference between routines and isolation, she said. While people with memory loss benefit from a strict schedule, they can decline when they’re isolated.
And for people in long-term care facilities, that can become extremely detrimental.
“They’re not really leaving their room in most cases,” Jensen said. “If you can’t do anything in your environment, I do think that can become frustrating and affects folks regardless of memory loss.”
Both Jensen and McDonough said there’s also a lot of concern for caregivers because now there is no additional help or ways to relax.
Jensen said 80 to 90 percent of cases of memory loss have caregivers in the home, as opposed to a long term care facility. That means people are finding themselves without access to outside help while in some cases trying still to work and care for the rest of their family.
And that kind of pressure can be too much for some people.
“Helping the patient feel secure and safe is a concern, but equally concerning is the family caregiver and what they may need,” Jensen said. “Hopefully they’re managing their own wellbeing but many are probably putting the person they’re caring for before themselves and we keep telling them they need a break.”
Jensen said caregivers should try to find even little ways they can relax, whether it is simply taking a bath or going for a walk.
In the meantime, Jensen said the center has offered caregiver classes for a while, but in the past it was limited to those who could physically come to the programs.
The center is now is providing services for family caregivers and those with dementia in other ways, through online support groups and educational seminars.
McDonough said the Alzheimer’s Association has also been providing resources to families and caregivers about their options for help and resources through the local chapter, such as virtual support groups and a 24-hour hotline, 800-272-3900.
Jensen said she’s hoping this time of isolation will help the larger community recognize the significance of caregivers and their needs
“Hopefully, it will give us all as a community more respect for both what family caregivers do and long term nursing staff,” Jensen said. “So I hope it will not only raise awareness for both families and professionals, but add more respect that we should have for those individuals.”
For more information, visit the Southeastern Virginia Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association or Riverside’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health online.
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