Are you worried about how the new rise of COVID-19 infections across the country will affect you and your person living with dementia?
Even though vaccines are now readily available in the U.S., CNBC reports in a recent article that COVID-19 cases are rising again in all 50 states across the U.S. as the Delta variant tightens its grip. While vaccinations have proven largely effective in protecting their recipients from serious disease, hospitalizations, or death due to COVID, the large number of unvaccinated Americans caused President Biden, the CDC, and other public health officials to call this the pandemic of the unvaccinated.
This, in turn, is concerning for caregivers and family members of people living with any form of dementia, including Alzheimers. There are reports that over 40% of people living with dementia had ability losses that exceeded those expected for their condition. The long-term effects of social isolation, physical inactivity, and other COVID protective measures have taken their toll on all of us, particularly those living with dementia and their care providers.
If you are caring for a person living with dementia, what can you do to best deal with the once again increasing number of cases?
We have learned over the past year that the best way to reduce your own risk and stop the spread of COVID is to use PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) with consistency and accuracy, such as properly worn masks, gloves when necessary, or a second layer of clothing that can be removed after a visit or interaction. And, if at all possible, get everyone involved vaccinated.
Below are five additional tips to help you and your person living with dementia live a positive life with COVID-19 cases on the rise and potential further lockdown measures on the horizon.
1. Communicate effectively
Whether due to comprehension changes or hearing changes, masks limit a person’s ability to take in spoken information. Limit the number of words combined with the use of visual props, gestures, and visual cues to get messages across. Center the information in the person’s central field of vision a little more than arm’s length out from their face. Slow your message sending down, to allow the other person more time to process what you’ve shared. If they don’t respond right away, try to resist the temptation to rush in and talk, as it may take up to 10 seconds for them to process the message and create a response. Nametags with your picture on your right-hand shoulder can help.
While face masks are important to help reduce the spread of COVID, not being able to see the greater part of your face can be disconcerting for people living with dementia. To help them feel a little more at ease, you may want to consider a mask that has a clear, see-through window in the area of your mouth. This allows the person to see your lips as you smile or talk. You may try masks from www.safenclear.com, an FDA approved mask provider for people who are hard of hearing or deaf and people living with dementia.
2. Fewer people together at a time
Due to changes in locating sources of sounds and problems with foreground-background noise, larger gatherings can overwhelm people. Since the CDC is recommending smaller groups and no large gatherings, this is a great match.
One-on-one visits or small groups will make it easier for a person living with dementia to connect with those that are there. Conversations may be more challenging, so having an activity you can do together may be just what everyone needs. Select a quiet environment with limited activity and sounds. Examples of this can be looking through photo albums, taking a walk outside, or using a visually oriented tabletop activity where you sit to their right hand side and use the surface.
3. Modify your expectations and activities to match current abilities
While we want to reduce as many risks around COVID-19 as we can, we need to support the whole person — body, mind, and spirit. While your person’s abilities might not be what they used to be, it is important for them to utilize the skills they still have. Use it or lose it is a true statement, particularly when dementia is involved. Finding ways to help your person be physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally active will be important for their overall health and strengthen their immune system. You may need to support them in different ways, but it is important to let them do what they are still able to do. Feeling valued and included is of vital importance.
4. Balance activity with rest and recovery — for both of you
Being exhausted is hard on your body, brain, and immune system. Not getting enough exercise, mental stimulation, or social interaction can impact the way you sleep as much or more than just having dementia. Building days and nights that balance being active and resting is a key piece of taking care of yourself and the person in your care. You may want to have someone else around to help you as changes in sleep behaviors are common during times of change, stress, discomfort, and dementia.
5. Monitor, but not just for COVID-19
See if you can figure out a monitoring system for you and your person living with dementia that gives enough attention but doesn’t overwhelm. And when it comes to monitoring, it’s not just COVID or symptoms of it, but other health and wellness matters. Things like sleep and rest, a sense of joy and pleasure at being alive, or being outdoors, are all factors of feeling well. Consider starting a journal to track both your activities and potential symptoms as well as those of the person in your care. This can allow you to see if what you are thinking is happening matches what you record. Also, it serves as a helpful tool to send to your medical provider, so they can get a clearer overview of life between visits.
It is unlikely that COVID will disappear in the near future, so we need to look at doing more than merely surviving; we want to be thriving. When COVID first began to affect us, there were many questions, but far fewer answers. While we may not have all of the answers yet, we do know quite a bit more about how we can live and be safe. Let’s work together and continue to do what has always brought us joy, but let’s do it in a way that is safe for us and respectful of others. Relationships are key to making life worth living, and utilizing the suggestions above can rebuild and strengthen bonds to help you thrive in the time of COVID.
Teepa Snow is a leading advocate and educator for people living with dementia or other forms of brain change. Snow is an occupational therapist with over 40 years of clinical and academic experience. Her company, Positive Approach to Care (PAC), was founded in 2007 and is now collaborating to improve dementia care in over 30 countries world-wide. Her latest book, Understanding the Changing Brain: A Positive Approach to Dementia Care is out in fall of 2021.