Sheltering In Place with a Person with Dementia - VA Palo Alto Health Care System
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VA Palo Alto Health Care System


Sheltering In Place with a Person with Dementia

Caregiver engages a patient with dementia

Older adults diagnosed with dementia may not understand the virus or why they must stay home.

By Joanne E. Weith, RN, MS, BSN, Geriatric Nurse, Geriatric Research, Education & Clinical Center
Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The wife of a Veteran is asked over and over: “Where are we going out for dinner?” Another is told: “I am getting out of here!” as their loved one heads for the street.

Older adults are at risk for the more severe complications of COVID-19 infections and have been told to avoid contact with others including family members who do not live with them. Many people have been struggling with boredom, anxiety, and depression as they are sheltering in place during COVID-19. So how is sheltering in place any different for those diagnosed with dementia and those who care for them?

The Alzheimer’s Association describes dementia as an overall term for diseases and conditions characterized by a decline in memory, language, problem-solving, and other thinking skills that affect a person's ability to perform everyday activities.

Older adults diagnosed with dementia may not understand the virus or why they must stay home. They may not remember what a caregiver or family member tells them and can ask the same questions over and over due to short-term memory loss. The news on the television is full of scary images and strong emotions which may cause a person with dementia not to feel safe. Senior centers and adult day care programs where they usually go to socialize and attend activities are closed, and they may be bored and restless. They may not have the coping skills to figure out how to pass the time or express their emotions in words and can become withdrawn or angry.

On the other hand, family members or caregivers may not have a way to get a break from the 24-hour care that a person with dementia can require. This leaves the caregiver to manage the daily demands alone, which can be exhausting. The shelter in place orders may gradually relax but some older adults will not feel safe venturing out until the infection rates go down, or there is a “COVID shot” like the flu shot.

Here are some things to try that may help if you are caring for a person with dementia during COVID-19:

  • Help the Veteran wash their hands.
  • If any outside care providers enter the home, ensure they wash their hands and wear a mask.
  • Try to follow a schedule. Have planned activities during the day that include exercise if possible.
  • Limit TV news if it upsets or frightens the person.
  • Try simple activities that may remind them of their work or hobbies. Some people like to sing or help with chores. Use favorite music or photographs to engage with them.
  • Reassure the person with dementia that they are safe.
  • Caregivers can connect with a support program by asking for the Veteran’s provider to refer them to a social worker or psychologist. Those professionals are providing care and counseling over the phone or video and may know of additional resources.
  • Stay in touch with family over the phone, or try video visits.
  • For help with behavior changes, the Alzheimer’s Association has a 24-hour help line (1-800-272-3900). If in danger call 911.

This may be a unique period of time, but there are many resources and means of support. As always, remember, you are not alone.


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