FLORHAM PARK, NJ — As the novel coronavirus COVID-19 continues to threaten millions of people around the world, the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater New Jersey (AAGNJ) is calling attention to the unique challenge that the health crisis presents for the more than 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s and, even more notably, for their caregivers.

According to AAGNJ, the strategies recommended for limiting contact with others during the pandemic is “nearly impossible for people living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias,” who rely on caregivers to live their daily lives. During this time, the Alzheimer's Association is committed to helping families take the necessary measures to prepare for and cope with such extraordinary circumstances.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is stressful for all of us, but most definitely for our caregivers in New Jersey,” said Cheryl Ricci-Francione, executive director of AAGNJ. “It's so important that we keep them front of mind, extend a helping hand and provide them with extra support that they so desperately need right now."

Sign Up for West Orange Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

According to Jim Prussak, who volunteers locally with the AAGNJ, it is very fulfilling for caregivers to “show our elders that they are not alone, no matter the conditions.” Although these are “extremely challenging times,” Prussak said caregivers of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients remain “resolute in [their] mission to help others help themselves.”

“These times re-emphasize the need for us to show our compassion, think of others and be there for our elders in need,” said Prussak. “Although we all may feel trapped in our temporary social isolation, we may not normally think of others who may feel this isolation on a regular basis and who need personal care. It is our mission to be there for them.”  

In addition to providing various resources for the community, such as virtual support groups and free education programs that are designed for easy access during the day and in the evenings, the AAGNJ has also shed some light on the risk COVID-19 poses to dementia patients and shared various tips for caregivers.

Dementia and the Risk of COVID-19:

According to AAGNJ, it is unlikely that a dementia diagnosis would increase the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, as COVID-19 is a respiratory illness whereas dementia is a cognitive disease. However, dementia-related behaviors, increased age and chronic health conditions that often accompany dementia may increase the risk.

For example, people with dementia may forget to wash their hands or take other recommended precautions.

AAGNJ also urges people to recognize that the elderly, those with chronic conditions of the heart and lungs or diabetes are at the highest risk for complications from COVID-19 and that viruses like COVID-19 and the flu may also worsen cognitive impairment due to dementia. 

People living with Alzheimer’s or other dementia are often under-diagnosed and under-treated for viruses like influenza and other conditions, according to AAGNJ. Those who become aware of flu-like symptoms in a loved one with dementia should take the person’s temperature and take him or her to the doctor for assessment.

TIPS FOR CAREGIVERS FROM ALZHEIMER’S ASSOCIATION:

Help people living with Alzheimer’s practice safe hygiene.

People with Alzheimer’s and other dementia may forget to wash their hands or follow other precautions to ensure safe hygiene. Caregivers are encouraged to be extra vigilant in helping individuals practice safe hygiene by adhering to the following:

  • Consider placing signs in the bathroom and elsewhere to remind people with dementia to wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds. 
  • Demonstrate thorough hand washing.
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol can be a quick alternative to hand washing if the person with dementia cannot get to a sink or wash his or her hands easily.

Likewise, it is important for caregivers to follow current guidance and instruction from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding COVID-19.

Some of those tips include the following:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
  • Stay home when sick, and work from home whenever possible
  • Cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after using bathroom; before eating; and after blowing nose, coughing or sneezing

Play “Gatekeeper” with outside caregivers and guests.

The majority of individuals living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias are over age 65, putting them at the highest risk for complications from COVID-19. This is especially true if a person with dementia has other chronic conditions of the heart and lungs or diabetes.

It’s critical that family caregivers carefully monitor who is coming into the home and to ensure all who enter are healthy. All household members should be proactive in asking outside caregivers and guests about their current health status and make sure they are not experiencing any early or recent symptoms of illness.

Family members should not visit residents of assisted-living or nursing home settings if they are experiencing any signs or symptoms of illness. 

Monitor any sudden or sustained changes in behavior.

People living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias may not be able to communicate if they are feeling early symptoms of illness. It is important that caregivers monitor family members closely and respond quickly to any signs of distress, discomfort or increased confusion.

According to AAGNJ, these signs do not necessarily indicate a serious condition like COVID-19, but it’s important that caregivers be diligent in investigating what is causing any sudden or sustained change in behavior.

Even when people living with Alzheimer’s cannot communicate verbally, their actions may be sending a message. Caregivers and family members should pay attention to flu or pneumonia-like symptoms and report them to a medical professional immediately.

Be calm and create a nurturing environment.

Although the pandemic is currently creating added anxiety for everyone, caregivers should do their best to remain calm—particularly in their interactions with family members living with dementia.

According to AAGNJ, these individuals will often take their cues from the people who surround them. Creating a calm environment will help individuals living with dementia feel safe and protected. 

If home healthcare workers or other caregivers are using surgical masks for added protection in the current environment, they should be sure to communicate this to the person with the disease in ways they can understand in order to alleviate any fear or anxiety this change may cause.  

Anticipate and prepare for changes in current care and support options.

As public health containment strategies for COVID-19 escalate during the next several weeks, AAGNJ advises families to anticipate having less help and support available. For example, many adult day care programs are shutting down temporarily during the crisis, and home health services may also become less available.

According to AAGNJ, it is also important to discuss alternative plans for care management if the primary caregiver should become sick. 

Families should begin making plans to fill potential gaps in caregiving, which could require asking family members and friends to help with caregiving responsibilities or seeking previously untapped resources for additional help.

Ask residential care facilities about its communication policies.

In order to protect the health of their residents, many long-term care facilities are restricting access to outside visitors. Therefore, family members should be asking how to get updates on their loved one’s health and how they can communicate with loved ones during the current crisis.

According to AAGNJ, some facilities may be able to help coordinate phone calls, video chats or Emails. If a family member is unable to engage in calls or video chats, loved ones should ask the facility how to keep in touch with facility staff in order to get updates.

Check with residential facilities about their procedures for managing COVID-19 risk.

The CDC has provided guidance to facilities on infection control and prevention of COVID-19. Family members should ensure that staff at these facilities have their emergency contact information as well as the information of another family member or friend as a backup.

Keep prescriptions filled.

Caregivers should also ask the patient’s pharmacist or doctor about filling prescriptions for a greater number of days to reduce trips to the pharmacy.

Call the 24-hour helpline as needed.

The Alzheimer’s Association free, 24/7 Helpline offers around-the-clock support for caregivers and families impacted by Alzheimer’s and all dementias. Call (800) 272-3900 at any time or find additional guidance at alz.org/COVID19. 

"We understand that caregiving doesn't fit neatly into a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule,” said Ricci-Francione. “That is why our free helpline is available to them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in over 200 language dialects. There is no limit to the number of calls that they can make.”

CLICK HERE to read more about how AAGNJ is supporting Alzheimer's and dementia patients and their families during the health crisis.