Although quarantine appears to be effective at preventing the spread of coronavirus, isolation isn’t easy. For some, including people with dementia, isolation isn’t just difficult or an inconvenience — it can make existing health problems even worse.

Patients with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia typically are at their best when they have social and cognitive stimulation, physical exercise and a set routine. But because of COVID-19, the things that help most to keep dementia patients stable are no longer readily available to them. Experiences like visits from extended family members or walks in the park are now risky for this mostly elderly population because, if they are exposed to COVID-19, they are more likely to have serious complications.

As a result of extended isolation, we’re seeing an increase in the number of dementia patients experiencing mood swings and mental decline. And we’re also hearing from family members and caregivers who are increasingly stressed and anxious, whether they are providing care themselves or overseeing a loved one’s institutional care. Below are tips for overcoming some of the most common challenges during isolation.

Establish a new routine

Knowing what to expect throughout the day provides a sense of comfort for patients with dementia. Doing certain things at the same time every day will help establish a new normal for you and your loved one, easing anxiety. Schedule times to:

• Wake your loved one

• Help him or her get dressed

• Eat meals

• Spend time outdoors if possible

• Join (senior-friendly) exercise classes online

• Do a puzzle or watch TV

• Take a drive

Make arrangements for loved ones living alone

Patients with dementia who live alone are now limited in their access to outside resources and may need additional support. Take proactive steps to ensure they are safe and well cared for.

• Contact in-home care providers and inquire about the services still being offered, as well as precautions to keep patients safe during in-home visits, if available.

• Make regular visits to check on your loved one. Wear a mask and keep your distance, preferably chatting outdoors.

• Arrange a time to drop off healthy meals.

• Research resources in your community like Meals on Wheels that can assist you with tasks as needed.

Stay connected

For families with loved ones who live in a memory care facility or nursing home, face-to-face visits are no longer possible. However, thanks to technology, there are ways to stay connected. You could:

• Schedule a time to call your loved one on the phone.

• Work with facility staff members to arrange a video chat. This will not only help your loved one feel less alone, but also alleviate any anxiety and uncertainty you have about his or her wellbeing.

• Arrange an outdoor, socially distanced and fully masked visit if possible.

Don’t get discouraged if these strategies aren’t always successful. Seeing you on a screen or in a mask may be confusing for your loved one. Keep trying until you find a strategy that works for you.

Practice self-care

Caring for a loved one with dementia is never easy. The added stress of isolation can quickly take a toll on your mental and physical health. That’s why it’s important not to neglect your own self-care.

• Take a time out. Even a 15-minute break can help you reset when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

• Exercise is good for your mental and physical health. Look for online classes.

• Find shortcuts. Take advantage of online resources being offered now to keep people from having to venture out, like grocery delivery.

• Join an online support group for dementia caregivers or confide in a friend or loved one. Sharing your feelings will help you feel less alone.

Comprehensive memory care services

The UVa Memory and Aging Care Clinic is scheduling patients for in-person clinic visits, taking all necessary precautions to keep patients and visitors safe. Some general tips for venturing out with a loved one who has dementia include:

• Interact with as few people as possible for short periods of time.

• Maintain a distance of 6 feet from others, even outdoors.

• Wear a mask and remind your loved one to keep his or her mask on at all times.

Virtual clinic visits are still available at UVa Health and have proved to be effective tools to evaluate patients, offer caregiver support and help solve problems as we all navigate these unique circumstances. To learn more about memory care services offered at UVa, visit uvahealth.com. Learn more about dementia and the treatments available at uvahealth.com.

Carol Manning is director of the Memory and Aging Care Clinic at UVa Health System. 

VITAL SIGNS This column, which promotes community health, is sponsored by Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, Region Ten Community Services Board, Thomas Jefferson Health District and the University of Virginia Heath System.

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