Dementia cases rose 20% in Virginia over the last seven months.
CHARLOTTESVILLE- When you talk about COVID-19, most of the conversation involves the actual virus. You talk about symptoms or how long quarantine lasts. But the pandemic also brought less physical problems, issues that aren’t being addressed.
Dementia-related deaths surged over the last seven months in Virginia. Over the summer, 61,000 people died from dementia in Virginia, 11,000 more than 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while experts aren’t 100% positive of the cause, many speculate that it’s due to the pandemic. Not as a symptom of the actual virus, but a tragic side effect of the new social norms.
“While the numbers are staggering, it does not reflect nearly the amount of people with COVID infections,” said Dr. Laurie Archbald-Pannone, who specializes in geriatric medicine at the University of Virginia. “Rather it’s shows the effect that the COVID era has on the care of people with dementia.”
According to Archbald-Pannone, some of the necessary rules to control the viruses’ spread have negatively effected older people with dementia and their caregivers. After caring for dementia patients for over twenty years, the CDC’s statistic didn’t surprise her. She’s witnessed the effects of the pandemic’s isolation on their lives firsthand.
“As we enter the first year of the pandemic, it’s important that we find creative ways to stay connected in our communities,” said Archbald-Pannone. “We need to support each other through the challenges that we’re going through.”
How social isolation affects patients with dementia
People misunderstand a lot of things about dementia. Usually when we hear the term, we tend to think of a pretty singular picture. But there’s no one way to have dementia. It’s a disease that exists on a wide spectrum, one that can affect people in different ways. However, social isolation is pretty harmful to most forms of the illness.
Now, to be clear, there is a difference between social distancing and social isolation. The problem is that people right now tend to confuse the two.
“Social distancing is a part of the overall infection prevention methods to decrease the spread of the virus,” she said. “Social isolation, however, not a good thing. It’s when we’re disconnected from our community. Being socially engaged while being socially distant is a part of figuring out how to survive in the COVID era.”
Social isolation can have distarous effects on our bodies. According to UVA Health, socially isolated people have higher rates of dementia as well as heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, cognitive decline and death. To Archbald-Pannone, it’s no coincidence that this increase has happened alongside the COVID-19 pandemic.
Humans are social creatures. We need social interaction for not only our physical health, but our mental health as well. Dementia causes memory loss, typically effecting people 65 years of age or older. Social connections, like talking on the phone, is especially helpful for people living with the condition.
Dementia patients aren’t the only ones affected
Caring for someone living with dementia can be a very difficult job, especially if they’re a loved one. In the most severe cases, a caregiver may be dressing, bathing, and even feeding a patient, often 24 hours a day. This doesn’t even take into account the emotional toll that this has on a person. Watching the decline of a family member, spouse or a friend is tremendously difficult.
“Even on the good days, caring for someone with dementia can be taxing,” said Archbald-Pannone. “Caring for someone close to us can be hard. Unrecognized burdens can fall on the caregiver. And this was before COVID.”
Nowadays, these caregivers are just as isolated as their patients, creating a much higher risk of them burning out.
“For dementia patients to get the best care, their caregivers also need care and support,” said Archbald-Pannone. If caregivers are not in good shape physically or mentally, people living with dementia may not receive the best care possible.
“We have to make sure that healthcare providers are becoming aware of this and are actively reaching out to caregivers whether they’re at home or in facilities,” said Archbald-Pannone. “We have to ask how we can support them and how can we alleviate any additional stressors that have been brought on by COVID.”
Healthcare outside the hospital
Throughout the summer, no one wanted to go to their doctor for a checkup. Even if it was a serious health issue, there was and still is a fear that if you go to a hospital, you could potentially leave with COVID-19. However, if you have a chronic condition like dementia, consistent treatment is non-negotiable.
“In the spring and the summer, we saw that people had less access to their primary care physicians for preventative care,” said Archbald-Pannone. “And it’s really important that we’re keeping up with their chronic medical conditions and giving them what they need when they need it.”
Increased access to medical care was a must. But, in the COVID era, healthcare professionals have to provide for their patients in a whole new way. the solution was telemedicine. Telemedicine has made it possible for doctors to see their patients remotely. Holding doctor’s visits over the phone or through video chat is a safer alternative to an in-person visit. So this way, they can meet their patients’ medical needs while making sure no one gets exposed to COVID-19.
However, Archbald-Pannone raised a good point. Telemedicine may not always be a viable option for those with dementia. Doctors and long-term care providers must take extra steps.
“Telemedicine, often an option for other patients, may not be manageable for those with dementia,” she said. “Physicians and staff need to reach out to them. ” But, on a positive note, this may allow long-distance loved ones a chance to help with their relative’s medical care.
“In our geriatric clinic, we have the option of getting routine visits done via video interface or over the phone. And this even carries additional benefits, like, if someone’s loved one lives out of state or isn’t able to come to an in-person visit, they’re able to join remotely through telemedicine visits,” said Archbald-Pannone.
How can people help their at-risk loved ones
If someone you know has dementia, Archbald-Pannone says that checking in on them is the best thing to do. However, she wants to make it clear that this does not mean throw caution into the wind. Maintaining CDC-reccomended guidelines is still of the utmost importance. Now, people just need to get more creative with communication skills.
“It can be as simple as a phone call. It may not be the safest option to connect physically with people. But calling them on the phone to check in can be helpful,” said Archbald-Pannone. “We don’t always need to have the answers. Sometimes being a listening ear can be enough.”
If you think a loved one may be suffering from dementia, the best thing to do is talk to a medical professional. There are many early, warning signs of dementia. But, with the elderly, that can be tough. It’s hard to distinguish between which signs are normal facets of aging and which ones are symptoms. Talking to a professional is the best way to know for sure. If you or a loved one needs help with dementia, you can call this 24/7 hotline, 800.272.3900, or visit the Alzheimer’s Association’s website.
Arianna Coghill is a content producer at the Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]