By Lauren Mahakian. Originally published in PV News “The Alzheimer’s Whisperer” – 6-25-2020

Wow, so much has happened since orders were first issued to slow the spread of COVID-19! First came fear of contracting the disease, and then immediate panic over basic supplies like toilet paper. Next came negative emotions that accompany isolation: will things ever return to normal? Now, just as “isolation frustration” reached a boiling point, we were teased with a methodical return to “normal” but it’s nowhere near fast enough.

All of this has taken its toll on those with dementia, arguably one of the most vulnerable subsets of society. The emotional toll is tremendous. Isolation leads to anxiety and fear, frustration, and confusion. We need to understand this and do something about it before it ends up in despair.

The isolation order, applying to memory care residences and communities in a more strict manner than even local supermarkets, didn’t just isolate seniors from the virus. It also isolated them from their families and friends. In many cases, it also restricted freedom to move freely within their own residence. Dozens of local communities began restricting interaction between residents for social activities and dining.

Isolation plays directly into fear and anxiety. Imagine for a moment that you are dependent on others for your basic needs such as dressing, bathing, eating, or toileting. You, like many of my clients, would be anxious about whether your basic needs would continue to be met in this current environment. Where is your next meal coming from? Will it be safe? What if your primary caregiver becomes sick with the Novel Coronavirus — or any disease for that matter? Is your life now at risk?

According to a New York Times report published May 9, 2020, one-third of all U.S. Coronavirus deaths are tied to nursing home residents or workers. Not exactly the news you want to hear if you’re completely dependent on others for your care, whether in your own home or a community, but understanding this doesn’t really help feelings of isolation.

As we begin a slow return to operation by restaurants and some other businesses, are seniors also returning to normal? In many cases that answer is no. Because those over 65 are deemed to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 than those younger, isolation rules may well continue for this population, and fear of becoming sick may perpetuate the isolation. I have also heard repeatedly that many seniors fear that they feel they are expendable among society as others rush to reopen the country.

Our loved ones with memory impairment are as frustrated as the rest of us, but also confused. While no stranger to challenging situations, these times are somehow different for seniors with global news reporting and social media. We are bombarded by images of people dying, of politicians arguing over policy surrounding the disease, and now large protests, violent riots, and shameless looting. The imagery does little to calm fears and can lead to significant confusion. Ultimately, isolation, fear, anxiety, and frustration can give rise to despair. The sense of not wanting to be a burden on loved ones may become more intense, making it all the more important to understand the range of emotions and do something about it.

If your loved one is stressed, start by thinking positive. Try to determine which emotion your loved one is feeling. Focus on your loved one’s feelings not their symptoms. Show empathy and use observational phrases such as “it looks like”, “it sounds like”, or “it seems like”. This will allow you to make note of the situation and reflect it back to your loved one.

From there, redirection may be used to decrease emotional distress in someone with mild to moderate dementia. Take note of what your loved one is doing or saying and then direct their attention in a slightly different, more positive direction.

For those who are in the later stages of dementia, distraction may be a more effective approach. Distract your loved one’s attention away from what they are feeling or thinking with something else. This could be as simple as introducing an object to the conversation, changing scenery like going for a walk, or playing a game.

Above all else, be positive. Your time with your loved one is precious. Make the most of it!

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