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Seniors living with dementia face devastating COVID-19 risks

With proper social stimulation and engaging experiences, seniors with dementia can thrive in new ways throughout the pandemic

By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Renew Senior Communities
Teepa Snow, an occupational therapist specializing in dementia care, with 40 years of clinical and academic experience.
Tips for caring for loved ones with dementia

What: Renew Talks Health, web series hosted by Renew Senior Communities.

Who: Teepa Snow, an occupational therapist specializing in dementia care, with 40 years of clinical and academic experience; Lee Tuchfarber, CEO, Renew Senior Communities. 

Subject: This webinar will provide attendees practical tips for caregiving during the pandemic such as connection strategies for video chat or phone calls, communication techniques while using personal protective equipment, and ideas for engagement that can be modified for infection control or used in the home setting.

When: Nov. 11, 2 p.m.

Where: Online. Register at renewsenior.com

Cost: Free

Seniors living with dementia are dying at higher rates this year compared to last, and while many of these deaths aren’t due to COVID-19 itself, they can be attributed to the pandemic’s far-reaching effects on this vulnerable population.

To combat the effects of coronavirus isolation, social environments such as Renew Roaring Fork Memory Care can help those living with dementia interact with other residents and experienced staff who deliver daily resident engagement experiences.

If those challenged with dementia aren’t using their remaining synapses — the junctions in the brain where neurons communicate with one another — they’ll lose these functions more rapidly. When you’re moving less, talking less, engaging less in activities that bring value or purpose, it leads to increased depression and a loss of these critical skills due to social isolation. 

“We have people dying at higher rates from dementia that’s due to this isolation,” said Teepa Snow, an occupational therapist specializing in dementia care, with 40 years of clinical and academic experience. “We’re working to save them from getting COVID, but we haven’t come up with a long-term dementia care plan taking COVID into account.”

Snow is the guest host of an upcoming web talk series, presented by Renew Senior Communities, Aspen Compassion and The Aspen Times, that will provide practical tips for caregiving during the pandemic such as connection strategies for video or phone calls, communication techniques while using personal protective equipment, and ideas for engagement that can be modified for infection control or used in the home setting.

“Teepa Snow is one of the most powerful presenters in the field of dementia care.  Her teachings are of enormous value to family members caring for a loved one with dementia at home, as well as professional caregivers in the field,” said Lee Tuchfarber, CEO of Renew Senior Communities. 

Consider the limitations of those with dementia

Lee Tuchfarber, CEO at Renew Senior Communities.

Those struggling with dementia experience a wide range of cognitive challenges including losses of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities. These changes in thinking skills affect daily life, behavior, feelings and relationships. 

When you’re trying to communicate with someone who is living with dementia, you have to take into account the abilities of the person with whom you’re trying to interact, Snow said. It’s also important to understand their ability to keep themselves safe. 

“This group is high-risk for not understanding the rules of social distancing, just like you wouldn’t expect a toddler to understand what it means to stay six feet away from the people they’re closest to,” she said. “When you’re emotionally invested in a loved one and see them not doing well, it’s hard to hold back from the need or desire to get close.”

Renew Memory Care has increased the number of activity directors in its communities to deliver more small group settings and one-on-one engagement during COVID-19. The focus is on the quality of each interaction, Tuchfarber said. 

Interaction techniques

Renew Memory Care has increased the number of activity directors in its communities to deliver more small group settings and one-on-one engagement during COVID-19.
Getty Images

Snow has been working on the ways that loved ones can remain close during the physical limitations of the pandemic. When a person living with dementia can’t understand why their loved ones aren’t visiting, you have to use other techniques, Snow said. 

“Go back to memories, tell stories that are friendly and familiar, show pictures in a video chat or a slideshow of photos, animals, plants, trees, people or a nature scene,” she said. “Or try using music. When you bring those elements into the interaction, it moves the interaction to a different place. Quit trying to use logic or reason, and just prepare for a challenging interaction.”

Snow works with her clients to try to help them figure out how to be with their loved ones. She wants loved ones to think about the goal of the interaction, which is often focused on providing the person living with dementia with something for which to look forward. 

Snow recommends doing active listening exercises with a reflection such as, “I’m so glad I get to spend some time with you today because you’re the best part of my day,” she said. This is especially important when the person living with dementia expresses frustration or disdain from the experiences of their own day.

“Try some simplified storytelling with visual cues, building a story with a mutual connection,” she said. “Move the conversation ahead while still helping them feel like they’re contributing to the conversation.”

Snow helps her clients accomplish this by asking this-or-that questions — would you like to eat a soup or sandwich? Something creamy or brothy? 

“Use visual cues on interactive platforms such as Zoom … physical presence is incredibly important in dementia care,” Snow said. 


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