What can you do when essential restrictions keep you from visiting your loved one in a nursing home or assisted living facility?

By Hamid R. Sagha, M.D. | April 21, 2020


Staying connected to Alzheimer’s patients during the COVID-19 pandemic

Staying connected to Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes and assisted living facilities is more critical than ever.

However, as a result of the virus, most nursing homes and other care facilities are not allowing visitors.  This restriction will undoubtedly apply until medical experts believe it is safe for the residents and staff.

Additionally, the restriction also extends to “non-essential” activities.  In other words, group dining and other social events, as well as group outings, are suspended for the duration of the pandemic.

Why are Alzheimer’s dementia patients at a higher risk for COVID-19?

Many Alzheimer’s dementia patients also have underlying health conditions.  These conditions make them even more susceptible to the severity of COVID-19.

However, there is one aspect that makes those with Alzheimer’s particularly vulnerable.  Cognitive impairment eventually renders patients less capable of protecting themselves from exposure to the virus.

Caregivers: The first line of defense

Thus, Alzheimer’s dementia patients and their families must look to caregivers as their “first line of defense” during this pandemic.  These patients need help with frequent handwashing, physical distancing, and disinfecting surfaces.  These are a few of the many critical safeguards for which the caregiver takes responsibility.

Even so, we need to stay connected with our loved ones struggling with Alzheimer’s because they need our presence.  They may often feel lonely, isolated, and even scared during this crisis.  So, staying connected to our Alzheimer’s patients remains a significant challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staying connected to Alzheimer’s patients: The Caregiver’s perspective

You have devoted time and made considerable sacrifices to care for a loved one struggling with Alzheimer’s dementia.  You made the difficult decision and arranged for him/her to move into assisted care or a nursing facility.

The first day you walk away from the facility, knowing that the person you have cared for is not leaving with you is often heart-breaking.  Many caregivers, regardless of their sound decisions, feel like they have failed.

If you are fortunate, you may know the physician, or the Administrator at the facility, or one of the staff members.  Knowing that a medical professional, executive, or staffer at the facility is on your side helps a little with the guilt.

Staying connected to Alzheimer’s patients: The patient’s perspective

Even so, at the nursing facility, your loved one will not have their pets, furnishings, or familiar surroundings.  Furthermore, during this pandemic, they will not have your physical presence.

Staying connected to Alzheimer’s patients in the days ahead is worth the effort to prevent their feeling further isolated.  I encourage you not to allow COVID-19 restrictions to undo all of the good you have accomplished in the care of your loved one.

Measures to maintain connections and prevent further isolation

More than just happiness and mental comfort, regular social interactions support better cognitive health.

Regular social interactions trigger numerous neural connections in the brain, keeping it agile.  If you have fewer daily connections, the neural connections in the brain are correspondingly fewer.

The restrictions due to COVID-19 are understandable, but over time, they could be detrimental to the Alzheimer’s patient,  Here are some alternatives that may prove helpful while restrictions are in place.

Personal connections

Staying connected to family and close friends is essential to the quality of life of your loved one in a memory care environment.  Check with the care center’s Activities Director or the Executive Director/Administrator and ask about the following:

  • Are they willing to provide one-on-one programming for Alzheimer’s dementia patients during COVID-19 restrictions?
  • Can they offer daily staff visits to these patients?  If so, these visits should be related to the patient’s past and current interests.
  • Are they willing to encourage patients in hobbies and other leisure activities?  If your loved one is still able to enjoy activities independently, ask them to offer and support such opportunities.

Connections using technology

Research shows that people with dementia can remember emotions after their memories fade.  That is to say, they recall how a person or event has made them feel, even if they cannot recognize faces and names.

Thus, creating an emotional connection using technology in the nursing home or assisted living facility is a potential alternative.  In fact, the following are potentially temporary solutions during COVID-19 restrictions:

  • Video chat services like FaceTime and Skype are great ways to stay in touch with loved ones who are geographically distant.
  • “Talking Mats” (available at the App Store and Google Play) is an example of an app that you can use to engage a loved one struggling with dementia.  It allows people to communicate their feelings by selecting pictures and symbols.
  • Memory photo phones are for individuals who cannot remember phone numbers and may need to contact someone immediately. They come with clear buttons for photos so that the person can just push the button associated with the picture to call their loved ones quickly.

Prevent further cognitive decline by staying connected with Alzheimer’s patients

Today, physical distancing is necessary to help manage and reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.  However, the unintended consequence is that the required restrictions will likely compound the feelings of isolation among Alzheimer’s dementia patients.

In essence, dementia is a disease with some social triggers, and thus, treating it requires a social solution.  Staying connected to Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes and assisted living facilities is essential to their brain health.

Subsequently, helping your Alzheimer’s patient keep family and social connections during COVID-19 restrictions is a critical facet of their care.  Otherwise, I assure you that increased isolation, whether for weeks or months, will result in further cognitive decline.