The COVID-19 pandemic had disproportionate and dangerous effects throughout the Alzheimer’s community as the coronavirus crisis surged in the United States.
The impacts were widespread and significant. Many people living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias felt more anxious and lonely. Caregivers saw more agitation, suspicions, and marked declines in their loved ones with the disease. Visitor bans in nursing homes and other facilities made assessing the health of a family member with dementia much harder.
Closures and COVID
Closures, stay-at-home orders, and fear of COVID-19 infection mean little help for family caregivers from home health aides or daycare programs, and the 24/7 care needs were stressful and exhausting. Caregivers worried about what will happen to their loved one if the caregiver gets the coronavirus? Where can they get a break? The physical and emotional impacts are took a toll on caregivers – and on the care they provide their loved one.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s widespread effects are seen through a series of surveys conducted by the UsAgainstAlzheimer’s A-LIST® of the Alzheimer’s community – people living with the disease, caregivers with loved ones at home, and those with loved ones in nursing homes.
“These survey findings speak to the abandonment felt by those affected by Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders and how it is unconscionable to have been this ill-prepared,” said Terry Fulmer, PhD, RN, FAAN and President of the John A. Hartford Foundation. “We have already seen the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and now COVID-19 as examples where those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias and their caregivers are left to fend for themselves in the early days of catastrophes. There will be another crisis. Will we be ready? There can only be one answer and this heart wrenching survey data tell us all why.”
The surveys include written comments by people living with the disease and caregivers that describe the isolation, worries and frustrations.
“My husband, who has Alzheimer’s, has lost a significant amount of ground cognitively,” one caregiver wrote in early May 2020. “He requires my constant attention 24/7. He has not been able to go to daycare for 8 weeks now, which gave me some respite. I need a break.”
She was just one of many caregivers dealing with these challenges.
“At CaringKind in New York City, we are hearing from increasingly desperate caregivers who are now providing care, without relief, 24 hours a day for their relative with dementia,” said Jed A. Levine, President and CEO of CaringKind. “The COVID-19 pandemic has added to their anxiety, exhaustion and feelings of uncertainty. Callers to our Helpline, our support group members and attendees at our education programs and cultural events – all offered virtually – are so grateful for the opportunity for support, connection, the realization that they are not alone, and to learn ways to manage this new and challenging reality.”
Stressed and Isolated
The UsA2 surveys include respondents living with a diagnosis of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), Alzheimer’s, or another dementia. In the latest survey, taken May 8-13, 2020, 52 respondents living with a diagnosis reported having more stress (65 percent) and feel more isolated (60 percent) since the COVID-19 restrictions went into place in March.
More than four in 10 (42 percent) of these respondents with a diagnosis also believed that their care partner’s stress level was higher (as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
More than a third (37 percent) of respondents living with dementia or MCI had concerns about their own health since the coronavirus crisis started. In addition to the survey responses, written comments to open-ended survey questions survey show increased anxiety and loneliness among people with a diagnosis.
In their written comments, people living with the disease used words such as “depressed” and “anxious” to describe themselves during the COVID-19 closures.
“Extreme anxiety about leaving the house. Dementia causes me to get lost sometimes while walking, driving, etc., and there are very few people out that might help me,” one man said.
“I feel like I’m hanging on by a thread mentally,” one woman wrote.
“No relationships with family and friends; I keep wondering when this virus will end,” one man wrote.
“I prefer time to myself, but being forced to isolate and inability to have some time with others has affected my mental state very adversely,” another woman said.
“The little social contact I had before has now almost entirely diminished,” said one man. “Seem to be more forgetful and harder to say what I mean,” another wrote.
Caregivers Saw Increased Confusion, Accelerated Decline in Loved Ones
Caregivers say their loved ones with dementia deteriorated more quickly as a result of shutdowns and isolation. Loved ones were more confused and agitated, and their dementia symptoms worsened, caregivers reported in written comments to survey questions. Caregivers felt they couldn’t manage alone without outside help, which was made more challenging with social distancing.
“My loved one with Alzheimer’s has stopped initiating conversation; when prompted she says little. It’s a marked decrease and very disheartening,” one caregiver wrote, adding: “My loved one has become suspicious of us and depressed believing her friends have abandoned her and the daughter living outside the home doesn’t care for her.”
“Without outside means to entertain and divert him, it is harder to keep my patience with having to explain why we cannot go places every five minutes; he is more confused and needs constant supervision,” one wrote.
“The isolation is infecting my wife who has dementia,” one man wrote. “What’s the disease of lack of social stimulation?”,
Difficulties with Loved Ones
“My loved one is suspicious that I’m being cruel by not taking her shopping; it makes her increasingly argumentative,” a caregiver wrote. “Adult child got laid off and is now living at home. That’s just an added stress.” She added: “I’m more angry and short-tempered. Not a good trait when dealing with a person who has dementia.”
At the same time, others saw moments to be grateful for. “There has been a huge adjustment that I (we) have had to compromise to support mental hygiene and physical health,” one caregiver wrote. “The effects have made us appreciate time and gratitude for moments that are available to care for ourselves and our loved one with Alzheimer’s. It’s been a balancing act.
Burdens on Family
The UsAgainstAlzheimer’s surveys show significant levels of stress and isolation for caregivers. In the May 2020 survey, 81 percent of caregivers reported higher stress because of the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdowns. In addition, nearly three in four (72 percent) of those taking care of people with Alzheimer’s disease at home were unsure what would happen to their loved one if the caregiver got sick with COVID-19, and 43 percent of caregivers are unsure what to do if their loved one with Alzheimer’s became sick.
“If I get sick, there is no one to take care of husband with dementia,” one caregiver wrote.
Nearly 9 in 10 (88 percent) of caregivers reported having one or more stress symptoms typically found in people experiencing severe stress – an 8-point jump from April. The top reported stress symptoms included: sleep problems (38 percent); difficulty concentrating (34 percent); trouble experiencing positive feelings (31 percent); loss of interest in activities (31 percent); vigilance/being ‘super alert’ (29 percent); and irritable/angry behavior (25 percent).
Importantly, in a new question in the May survey, 25 percent of dementia caregivers said physical or mental changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic and isolation affected their ability to care for their loved ones. That survey also found that 26 percent say they needed more access to outside support groups – but were unable to get it. Another one in six (16 percent) caregivers said they needed, but couldn’t get, home health aides because of the COVID-19 coronavirus and closures.
“Closed the day care my husband was attending; now I am with him 24/7 and it does get to be a bit much, but we are making it work,” another said.
“As her dementia becomes worse, my inability to do everything that needs to be done weighs heavily,” another caregiver wrote.
“I am much more on edge, snappy,” one wrote. “It’s not her fault, I’m tired.”
“I feel I lack my prior levels of patience,” one caregiver wrote. “I’m dealing with the stress of knowledge of the world outside my home and impacts on our family, friends and community and shouldering my fears alone as my loved one is unaware of these impacts. I am still providing the care he needs, but I’ve hurt my back during this crisis and have to bathe and dress him so I’m not only in pain but I’m exhausted because the pain doesn’t allow me to sleep soundly.” She added, “His ability to communicate has declined, his dependence on me has increased.”
“I am much more irritable, less patient and becoming depressed because I am so worried about the future and how I will continue to care for my mom,” one wrote.
“I try to keep myself as busy as I can in order to not think about too much; otherwise I’ll go nuts,” a caregiver wrote. “It is better to have a positive attitude as best as you can for your own sake and the well-being of your loved one. I must admit though that it has affected my sleeping patterns.”
“I have more days when I’m feeling low; more days when I am irritable,” wrote a caregiver.
Visitation and Restrictions
“The adult day care that provided my loved one with stimulating actives and much needed socialization is now closed due to COVID-19; reopening date TBD,” one caregiver wrote.
“I miss seeing and spending time with friends and family,” one caregiver said. “I’m bored and ready for this to be over, although I’m worried that it never will be over.”
In the first UsA2 survey in March on the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, caregivers shared advice on how to manage stresses and anxiety during this deeply uncertain time. Their advice can be found in this blog post.
A smaller set of 36 survey caregiver respondents who have loved ones with Alzheimer’s or another dementia in assisted living facilities were experiencing high stress levels because of visitation restrictions and challenges getting information about their loved one at a time when COVID-19 outbreaks are growing. The survey found that 31 percent said they had heard of cases of COVID-19 in the assisted living facility at the time of this survey (May 8-13), nearly double the rate in the April survey.
Media outlets analyzing state data reported that almost a third of coronavirus deaths come from nursing homes. And, with nearly half of all long-term care facility residents living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, individuals with the disease have became one of the most disproportionately vulnerable groups from COVID-19 in the country. The May survey results showed that 100 percent of the 36 respondents with loved ones in facilities supported requiring COVID-19 testing of all nursing home residents and staff.
Nursing home patients with dementia were no longer able to have families or caregivers visit them and assess their health.
The May survey found that 92 percent were unable to see their loved one because of virus-related visitation restrictions, and nearly three quarters (72 percent) said their stress levels were higher. Top stressors of caregivers with loved ones in assisted living facilities included the inability to know/accurately assess health status (64 percent); concern about facility’s ability to manage the situation (44 percent) and concern about facility’s ability to adequately care for their loved one (42 percent). More than a third (36 percent) say they were less confident about the level of care for their loved one.
“I’m not allowed to go visit my mom at all in the assisted living facility,” one caregiver wrote. “I have not seen her since the beginning of March. She wonders why I have not been able to visit. Dementia is nobody’s friend.”
“Mother in assisted living home with one COVID-19 case and little contact with her, and the fact she’s shut in her room with nowhere to walk/get exercise and very little human contact is very scary!” one caregiver said. “No end in sight for Alzheimer’s people such as her.”
“My mother is in Memory Care so she is well cared for, but my family has been unable to see her in quarantine and we feel her cognitive abilities have declined,” a family member said.
“The heartache of not being able to visit my husband; will probably be at least until August,” a spouse wrote. “I stay away from others to make sure I don’t get sick so I will be able to visit as soon as I can.”
“I cannot physically visit my husband who is in a memory care facility. I can only have ‘window visits’ with him. It allows me to see him, but no physical contact…I can’t hold his hand, give him a hug, etc.,” a woman caregiver wrote. “We’ve been married 58 years, this is extremely hard and stressful.
Please share your stories about how Covid impacted your family at Facebook.com/groups/beverlysdaughter.
Supporting a senior parent with their mental health needs can seem like an overwhelming task. This may be especially true if you are already tending to many physical health needs. However, you can find support as you care for your loved one both mentally and physically! And we are ready to be that support!