Research has shown that social isolation can have a negative impact on anyone’s health, but seniors and particularly those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias are more vulnerable to its devastating effects. The pandemic has further tested this theory, with tragic results.
As a former dementia family caregiver, my heart broke for Dan Goerke and his wife Denise, profiled in The Washington Post this week. The images that accompany the story illustrate quite viscerally just how quickly a person with dementia can decline, physically and cognitively, when socially isolated. Weight loss and depression are common, among a more rapid decline in memory and speech skills.
According to The Washington Post analysis of federal data, there have been 13,200 excess deaths from Alzheimer’s and dementia since March in the U.S. That number is compared to the number of such deaths in previous years. While we may never know how much social isolation factored into this spike, the mandate that many nursing homes have implemented, effectively banning family members from visiting their loved ones in person, has taken a significant toll.
It’s not prudent to say that nursing home visitation should be reinstated without restrictions during a pandemic until a vaccine and more effective treatments are widely available. We’ve seen how COVID-19 has ravaged nursing homes and how superspreader events can lead to the deaths of our most vulnerable populations.
However, there could be a more sensible middle ground reached in some cases. Outdoor visits when possible, everyone taking safety precautions seriously, quick testing, limited visitation hours, etc. There are many stories about people visiting through windows, etc. and while this can be helpful, those with Alzheimer’s and dementia often benefit from touch. The image of the Goerkes, separated by a door threshold, with hands outstretched is so poignant.
The damage being done is not just to those with dementia, but to their caregivers. The emotional pain and stress family members are going through right now is unfathomable. As with most things and especially with this pandemic, there are no easy solutions, no one-size-fits all answers. But we must do better, and advocate for better outcomes. A visit to a nursing home during a pandemic does not have to lead to a death sentence, but banning visits can have a detrimental effect on those with dementia and their families.