The COVID-19 pandemic raises all kinds of issues when it comes to caring for loved ones living in long-term care facilities. These issues become even more acute when that person suffers from dementia.
For one thing, seniors with dementia are more likely to have difficulty remembering and complying with COVID-related safety recommendations, such as wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and maintaining social distance.
COVID restrictions also make it more difficult for family members to monitor their loved one’s situation. When we are not allowed to visit them in person, we have to rely on updates from facility staff, who are often overburdened and lacking in the individualized communication skills that come with years of interaction with a specific person. Facilities are required to notify families whenever they have a new case of the virus. They will tell you whether it was a resident or staff member who tested positive and the most recent date on which that person had contact with others in the facility, but privacy considerations limit what additional information they can share.
This can increase anxiety about our loved one’s situation, especially when a facility cycles through imposing restrictions, lifting them, and then imposing them again as new cases are discovered. In normal times, the coming and going of caregivers would be a wonderful thing, a way for the cognitively impaired to feel connected to the world. At the present time, however, this kind of traffic creates additional opportunities for the virus to spread.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued guidelines allowing persons deemed “essential caregivers” to enter facilities on a limited basis to provide services to clients. These guidelines are designed primarily for professional caregivers who provide skilled services, however, not for family members who want to visit their loved ones in different groupings and often at off-hours.
Now that we are months into the pandemic, there has been a great deal of concern expressed for young children, for whom a year or two spent at home and not in the classroom can have detrimental effects on their intellectual and social development. Individuals at the other end of the age spectrum are also particularly vulnerable. And in their case, the months of lost contact with family can never be recaptured. Some seniors with cognitive impairment are already at the point of not remembering what life pre-COVID was like.
Just in the last few weeks, shipments of vaccines have been making their way to states and localities, and residents of long-term care facilities are second on the priority list (after healthcare workers) for receiving vaccinations. Older persons will continue to be a vulnerable population, however, and many facilities will maintain some form of quarantine restrictions, including limits on visitation, for months to come. Given this reality, it is important to take whatever extra steps we can to maintain the quality of life of those loved ones who suffer from cognitive impairment and are living in long-term care facilities.