Dementia and COVID-19

People around the world are struggling to understand the global pandemic that COVID-19 has created. Our lives have changed dramatically almost overnight with events being cancelled and everyone asked to stay home. Although some states, including Tennessee, are starting the process of reopening, chances are good that access to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities will be restricted for a while longer.  If you care for a person with dementia, how do you explain the coronavirus? How do you explain why you’re not able to take them shopping, to their weekly senior’s club or to church? How much should you tell your loved one and how do you explain it?

Here are some thoughts about how to respond to questions about the COVID-19 situation from a person with dementia who lives with you.

Question #1: I live with my mom who has dementia. How much should I share with her about COVID-19 and what is happening?

Answer: Think about what is in her best interests right now. If she’s asking questions that you think she’ll understand the answers to and it will alleviate her confusion, give her information. But if her cognition has been affected by her dementia to the point that she has limited understanding of new information and it will only make her more anxious or confused, it’s probably best not to explain the current world situation. Carry on as normal as possible and limit her exposure to the news.

Question #2: How do I get her to wash her hands more often?

Answer: It will probably work better if you show her rather than tell her. Bring her to the sink and wash your hands together. Break it down step by step if necessary. Play her favourite song and make it fun, singing and scrubbing to the music. If handwashing proves too difficult, use nicely scented hand sanitizer. Put the sanitizer in your hand and ask if you can give her a hand massage. Replace paper napkins with handwipes and clean surfaces often.

Question #3: She wants to go to her senior’s club and the coffee shop. How do I get her to understand that it just isn’t possible right now?

Answer: She may not be able to understand because she’s living with cognitive changes. Depending on the type of dementia she has, there may be damage to the part of her brain that allows her to understand logic, see your point of view, and make sound decisions for herself. Stay calm and patient. It isn’t her fault that she doesn’t understand. It’s a symptom of the dementia. Instead, set up a new routine with meaningful activities that she’ll enjoy in place of her normal pastimes. Phrases like, “I’m sorry. I know this is hard. I wish we could go out, but we can’t for now” or “The doctor doesn’t want us to go anywhere for today so we have to listen to the doctor” can be helpful in diffusing your mom’s anger. She still won’t like it, but older adults will often respect the wishes of authorities like doctors, lawyers and police officers. Blame someone else if it gets you off the hook as the bad guy!

How long will the COVID-19 situation last? Some experts say that social distancing should continue for several more months, with people over 65 continuing to shelter in place. In the meantime, extend grace and patience to your loved one. If COVID-19 is confusing for you, just imagine how it must feel to your loved one.

If you could use a little extra help planning for your loved one's care, don't forget that Takacs McGinnis is still open to serve you. We can meet with you now via phone or videoconferencing. Just give us a call at 615.824.2571.

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