Managing the health of our loved ones with dementia is difficult enough even when we are dealing with the annual flu season. This year has ushered in a new coronavirus, which is causing an outbreak of serious respiratory disease that began in China and has now spread across the globe, including in the U.S. While 24/7 news coverage has caused some to panic and others to go into denial, caregivers should be concerned about the coronavirus, as they would with any virus which is highly contagious and has a higher mortality rate in older populations and those with compromised immune systems.
Here are some tips for caregivers of those with dementia as they encounter a world which has been disrupted by the coronavirus. (Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. If you have any questions surrounding the coronavirus, please consult a physician.)
- Symptoms: Those with dementia often can’t clearly express how they are feeling. Their caregivers must be vigilant in tracking any changes in their physical health. According to the CDC, there are 3 main symptoms associated with coronavirus: fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Emergency symptoms include difficulty breathing, chest pain, new confusion separate from dementia, and bluish lips or face.
- How it spreads: The CDC believes that the coronavirus spreads easily, primarily by person-to-person contact. The CDC recommends not touching your face, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing, frequent hand washing, and frequent disinfecting of commonly used surfaces and objects. Caregivers will want to pay special attention to their own health, and make contingency plans now for who will take care of your loved one if you contract the coronavirus.
- For those with dementia who are diagnosed with coronavirus: If they have a mild case that does not require hospitalization, you will want to keep them isolated at home, separate from other family members. Those with dementia are often sensitive to any changes in their routine, so you may need to get creative in explaining these changes to your loved one. Use your best judgment, but it may be best to avoid potentially frightening words like “quarantine.” Try to involve your loved one in tasks they enjoy, such as puzzles, crafts, or listening to music or watching TV. Keep your loved one comfortable and monitor for any spikes in symptoms; unless it’s an emergency, call ahead if you need to visit the doctor.
- Keep public outings to a minimum: You may want to keep public outings to a minimum until the coronavirus outbreak is under control in your community. It can be a challenge to manage the movements of those with dementia in public settings and they may not comprehend or forget instructions such as hand washing.
- What about facemasks? The CDC does not recommend facemasks for those who are healthy. For those with coronavirus and their caregivers, facemasks are recommended. It may be a challenge to keep a facemask on a person with dementia, which is why it’s so important for caregivers to wear masks and to isolate those who are ill so they cannot spread the disease.
- What can caregivers do to prepare? Plan now for a potential outbreak in your community. Stock up on supplies, including food, hygiene, and basic medical supplies. Make sure prescriptions are filled. If your loved one is used to attending activities such as adult day care, create alternative activities at home. Make a contingency plan in case you become sick. Contact your support network and develop a specific coronavirus plan. Reach out to public health agencies in your area for further aid.
It is too early to know how much of an outbreak of coronavirus we will experience in the U.S. I do think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. And if history is any indicator, there may be additional outbreaks that arise in future seasons, so caregivers should remain vigilant even if there is a lull in the summer. Take proper precautions for your loved one with dementia and yourself, and we should be able to weather this storm.
Next week, I’ll discuss the challenges that nursing homes are facing in trying to prevent coronavirus outbreaks in their communities.