Dementia patients, caregivers face unique challenges during pandemic: Alzheimer Society

Published March 21, 2020 11:49 a.m. ET

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TORONTO -- The Alzheimer Society of Canada is adding more virtual services during physical distancing as the COVID-19 pandemic piles extra pressure onto caregivers looking after dementia patients.

Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behaviour. Its symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks and to a point where some patients need round-the-clock care.

Cathy Barrick, CEO of the Alzheimer Society of Canada, told CTV News Channel on Saturday that dementia is a very isolating disease to begin with and is now heightened by health authority guidance to practice physical distancing to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

“They’re some of the most isolated in our communities as it is and so having this additional restriction makes it really difficult,” Barrick explained.

“People with dementia actually do best with familiar faces around, they do best with routine. Those in long-term care who can’t receive visitors, familiar faces, it’s really difficult for them.”

Expert advice to practice handwashing and not to touch your face are also difficult for dementia sufferers.

“Depending on what stage of the disease they’re at, they may not understand those instructions,” Barrick said.

“Keeping their hands busy is probably the best you can do.”

The Alzheimer Society has published a guide for those caring for dementia sufferers titled “Social distancing yes, social isolation no,” which outlines the particular challenges brought by COVID-19. 

“We are very quickly adapting our service delivery model to be virtual, so we are connecting with our clients in any way possible,” Barrick said.

“We did that quite a bit before actually, by telephone, but obviously we’re adding things like video conferencing and live streaming, exercise activities and things like that.

“We’re doing everything we can to try to keep the support available to families who are living with this in the community.”

People with dementia are often dependent on others to help with daily needs like buying groceries, preparing meals and bathing, so caregivers are especially challenged with managing their loved ones’ needs while staying healthy and adhering to physical distancing, the Alzheimer Society said.

“We’re very worried about caregivers. One of the things that’s happened because of needing social distancing, things like day programs and other respite opportunities have been suspended for the time being because we can’t have people congregating,” Barrick said.

“So caregivers are caring for people with dementia and are not getting a break and we already know in the best of times that caregiving is very stressful and caregivers do have burnout, so this adds extra pressure.”

The Alzheimer Society also recommends things like virtual visits via FaceTime, making sure patients have enough medication, knowing the right support organizations and being a good neighbour.

“If you have a neighbour who’s caregiving, just try to be as helpful as you can, of course respecting the social distancing guidelines,” Barrick said.

“Maybe leave a meal on the doorstep or even just a telephone call to say ‘How are you doing?’.”

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