Care for Parents with Alzheimer’s During Covid-19

With the world in the grip of a pandemic, staying home 24-7 is the new norm — and it’s taking a toll on everyone. But that toll may be even greater on those struggling to provide remote care for a family member with Alzheimer’s.

By Karen Asp
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My 79-year-old dad has Alzheimer’s. Although I live 20 minutes from my parents’ home, social distancing has made it impossible to interact with them on any meaningful level. Because they’re both in their late 70s, they’re not leaving their home (I do their grocery shopping), which means no more bridge clubs, meals with friends, shopping trips or workouts at the local gym. Of course, halting their life is no different than what everybody else is doing – I am at least sending my golden retriever over for regular sleepovers — but the consequences may be different. 

Before the pandemic, my mom was already struggling with my dad who repeats himself frequently and can’t remember his birthday, let alone what he ate for breakfast. He also needs constant reminding to wash his hands and practice social distancing. Now, I fear that being together 24-7 will not only further my dad’s cognitive decline but also impact my mom’s brain health.

These are valid fears. “Many caregivers may experience additional stress and exhaustion during this time, especially when compounded with other responsibilities like work and childcare,” says Beth Kallmyer, M.S.W., vice president of care and support for the Alzheimer’s Association.  

How am I coping? By trying to live as cleanly as possible: eating well, sleeping well, and taking care of my own health. But another thing that I find helpful is communicating with other members of the community. Here, three women share how they’re dealing with parents with Alzheimer’s during the pandemic. Hopefully, their stories will help you feel less alone, too.

“My parents with Alzheimer’s refuse my help”

Andrea Burnett used to visit her parents every weekend. They live about 30 miles from her home in northern California in a gated senior community. Her father George has early-onset dementia. Yet because of the orders to stay home, Burnett’s weekly visits have stopped, and she’s worried — especially because her father also suffers from COPD. “It’s upsetting to know I can’t be near them during this difficult and dangerous time.”

Plus, because of restrictions due to Covid-19, Burnett’s parents can’t rely on others to help them, either. They no longer have a housekeeper and have stopped going to physical therapy, a service they need, especially given that her mother Lee broke her back in November.   

Her parents are dividing the cleaning responsibilities between them, and her mom is trying to do her exercises on her own. Yet they spend most days sitting. “Because inactivity speeds Alzheimer’s and dementia, I fear that my dad’s mental health will decline at a more rapid pace,” Burnett says.

Although Burnett has offered to deliver groceries, her parents refuse. In fact, they’re even venturing out to stores and the pharmacy. “My folks are independent, so it’s hard to get them to accept help, even mine,” she says.

Fortunately, her parents know how to use Zoom, and they’re now doing regular check-ins. “It’s pretty funny to talk to them — like a Saturday Night Live skit,” she says. But that’s just the start, and the longer this goes on, she knows she’ll have to find creative new ways to interact — and potentially intervene more.

“Risking Coronavirus for companionship”

For Terese Kelly Greer of Allendale, N.J., there was no question about whether or not she would continue to see her mom Ann, who lives about 20 minutes away in her own home with a full-time aide. “I’ll visit her every other day or so, but I don’t go near her,” she says. The only exception? When she brings her mom to her own home.  

The reason is simple. “When my mom doesn’t see us or get human interaction, she gets irritable, which is hard for the aide,” Greer says. And while her mom used to see friends and family regularly, that’s stopped. “I get concerned that she has to stay in the house and can’t see people, and although I understand it’s for all of our safety, I have to make this exception and go see her.”

Even though Greer is working from home now and doesn’t interact with anybody, she is taking precautions. “I have a three-year-old, so I’m used to washing my hands frequently,” she says. And she maintains six feet of space from her mom, except when helping her mom out of her car. But she’s constantly reminding her mom that they can’t hug or kiss each other. Ann seems to be okay with that – for now.  

Because inactivity speeds Alzheimer’s and dementia, I fear that my dad’s mental health will decline at a more rapid pace.

Andrea Burnett,  whose father has Alzheimer's

Alzheimer’s in a shared space

Not everybody is living apart from their Alzheimer’s-stricken parents. Four years ago, Annette Adams-Brown of Lakeland, N.Y., moved in with her parents after recovering from her own health scare. Before her dad passed away in 2016, he asked her to take care of her mother Bertha, and she has, especially after learning that she has Alzheimer’s. “She’s not the type who would do well in a facility,” Adams-Brown says.

So, what do the days entail? Although she’s still going to work (she’s a patient educator at a medical center), they eat breakfast together, but rather than watching news, they talk. “When my mom watches news, she panics (about COVID-19),” she says. Adams-Brown also asks that friends and family not mention Coronavirus when they call or text.

Once she’s home from work, after washing her hands, face and cleaning any surface she’s touched, Adams-Brown focuses on giving her mom physical and mental stimulation. She’s given her a pedicure and washes her hair. They watch Family Feud, read books, do word scrambles and puzzles, and play Dominoes.

And because Bertha’s physical therapist can no longer come, Adams-Brown walks her mom in the hallway of their apartment building. But she worries her mother is becoming too sedentary. “She’s sitting so much that she’s complaining about pain,” Adams-Brown says. Yet she doesn’t want to take Bertha to a medical facility to be checked for fear of exposing her to the virus.

In spite of all this, she doesn’t regard what she’s doing as caregiving. “I feel honored to be taking care of my mom,” she says.

For more help and advice handling your relative with Alzheimer’s, call the Alzheimer’s Association National helpline (800-272-3900).

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