The coronavirus pandemic has affected all seniors, but perhaps none more so than those living with dementia and their caregivers.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. In the United States, one in seven people lives with Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative disease that typically affects older people and is characterized by impaired memory, thinking and problem-solving skills.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that seniors are at greater risk from the coronavirus and should avoid contact with others. The recommendations for flattening the curve by sheltering in place, frequent handwashing and wearing masks in public places are difficult for people living with Alzheimer’s disease to understand or remember. Aphasia, a common language problem in Alzheimer’s that affects the production or comprehension of speech, makes it difficult for patients to articulate their needs, leading to confusion, frustration, lack of cooperation, tearfulness and apathy.
The closures of libraries, senior centers and houses of worship, resulting in cancellation of social activities, therapy and exercise classes that people living with Alzheimer’s participated in, has resulted in changes to established routines, enforced isolation, loss of structure, restlessness and boredom. Change typically worsens the behavioral and psychiatric symptoms that accompany Alzheimer’s, including aggression, delusional thinking, depression and anxiety. It’s these behavioral and emotional changes that cause the greatest caregiver stress, contributing to earlier nursing home placement.
Relief from soaring stress levels
The impact of the shutdown has been greatest on caregivers, many of whom are caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s around the clock. A recent UsAgainstAlzheimer’s survey shed light on caregivers’ concerns, with close to two-thirds of caregivers having made lifestyle changes following COVID for fear of becoming infected or infecting their loved one. Changes have included avoidance of respite services, resulting in fewer opportunities for self-care and stress-relief activities, perhaps accounting for the 82% of caregivers reporting greater levels of stress than before the pandemic.
According to Peter Bayley, Ph.D., an expert in Alzheimer’s and director of research at the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center at the VA Palo Alto, “The role of caregiver is a stressful one. Long-term stress negatively affects physical and mental well-being, and we know that physical activity and relaxation are key to reducing stress.”
UsAgainstAlzheimer’s recently highlighted caregivers’ concerns, including the lack of physical and social stimulation their loved ones are experiencing, even if they are not aware of it, and the possible consequence of the permanent exacerbation of the disease. Caregivers’ concerns are justified – there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, and experts recommend physical activity, social connection and engagement in cognitively stimulating activities to slow the progression of disorder.
Since the pandemic began, activities that caregivers and Alzheimer’s patients can participate in together and bring joy are few and far between. The research Bayley is conducting on the benefits of at-home yoga that caregivers and Alzheimer’s patients participate in together is welcome news.
“There are many ways yoga can benefit caregivers, who often experience stress and other health problems as a consequence of the demanding role they have, and provide much-needed mental and physical stimulation for people living with AD,” Bayley said.
Bayley and his team are looking for research study volunteers. For more information, call the study coordinator at 304-1517.
Finding ways to replace outings with at-home activities that are engaging, while providing joy and connection, can ease the challenges of the pandemic for caregivers and patients. Consider making time to watch a favorite movie, connecting with friends and family using FaceTime calls, listening to music, looking over old photo albums or even joining some of the virtual cafes that senior centers are starting to offer.
Rita Hitching is a researcher and freelance science writer specializing in neuroscience and mental health.