Coronavirus and living with dementia – Coping in unprecedented times

It’s not easy to know where to begin with a blog on the current monumentally uncertain times that the world is facing, but I’m going to attempt to address the coronavirus disaster (I don’t think the word crisis goes far enough) in this and subsequent blogs as we all try to adjust to the unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in.

Firstly, way back (well it seems like a long time ago now!) when we first heard about this virus in December and as it escalated into January, it frightened me. Reports of the pneumonia it causes sent a shudder through me with vivid recollections of how my father – over a period of around a month – fought and died, drowning from the inside as his lungs filled with fluid. 

Anyone who thinks this is a trivial disease is so incredibly misguided and, in common with experts and governments around the world, I have one simple message: STAY AT HOME AND SAVE LIVES

I appreciate, however, that the fundamental change to the only way of life most, if not all, of us have ever known is a huge ask. I’m having to do it – currently self-isolating with my mum (who is 80) and trying to keep a 4-year-old entertained while I devote my working time to writing as all of my consultancy work is indefinitely postponed. It’s not easy, and if you are supporting a loved one with dementia, it will be even harder. 

I’ve been asked a few questions by families in this position over the last few weeks, and in this blog (and others) I will share my answers:

 

Help! How do we hand-wash more?

I know lots of people are struggling with this simply because A) a person with dementia may not remember to wash their hands, and B) even if the person remembers, they may be unsure of how to wash their hands or not do it with the thoroughness and for the length of time needed.

In his years living at home before his diagnosis, my dad struggled with personal hygiene, and although his care homes tried to remedy this, hand washing wasn’t frequent. Dad’s hands often looked dirty, even when he was about to be given a meal, mostly from remnants of old food or possibly even where he had put his hand into his incontinence pad. This was particularly noticeable once he was immobile.

So, this is a very real problem even before coronavirus magnified the need for scrupulous hand-washing. Some key points to remember to support a person living with dementia who is struggling with hand washing:

  • Is it clear where the washing facilities are? Signage around the home can help the person to navigate their way to the bathroom or cloakroom to wash their hands. 
  • Once inside the bathroom or cloakroom, is it clear where the basin, taps and soap are? Try to have contrasting colours to make it more obvious.
  • Does the person know how to turn the taps on, how to get soap out of the dispenser, and do they remember how to wash their hands? Again, signage (pictures and words) can help to jog the person’s memory and support them to remain independent.

 

If the person is immobile, try what I used to do with my dad:

  • I’d get a bowl of warm, soapy water and put it on a table in-front of dad or on his lap if he was calm. 
  • We’d both put our hands in together, and using extra soap I’d gently wash his hands and wrists and scrub under his nails, taking my time and making it a relaxing experience.
  • I’d then put dad’s hands into a towel, go and change the water for fresh, clean warm water and return to rinse his hands before doing a final dry on another clean towel.

It wasn’t a quick process, but very effective, especially for soaking off stuck on dirt, and from a sensory perspective it was lovely to both have our hands in warm soapy water together. I doubt from a virus prevention perspective it would be anywhere near as efficient as washing under running water as we’ve all been told to do, but if the person is immobile and it’s not possible to get them to a basin it would be better than no hand washing at all.

For a person with dementia who dislikes the feeling of water, hand sanitiser (with alcohol) is an alternative to hand washing. Sanitiser is, though, in short supply and I’ve had zero success finding any of this for our household.

 

Help! How do we self-isolate?

Many people with dementia will be living with other conditions like heart or lung problems that make them particularly at risk from coronavirus, or indeed their age will be a risk-factor. Avoiding developing this virus is by far the best policy, but self-isolation carries many challenges for a person who is already confused and frightened. My tips to support each other include:

  • Avoid an overload of tension and a desire to ‘get out’ from all members of a household by having a consistent routine and lots of things to focus on each day. 
  • Support a person with dementia to engage in hobbies they like or indeed to try new activities. If you need materials to support hobbies or activities, look online to see what can be delivered. Stores like Hobbycraft offer home delivery, but it will take longer than usual for your items to arrive (and of course there are lots of other arts and crafts websites too).
  • An internet connection can be invaluable in terms of being able to keep in touch with family and friends via video calls or messaging, and so many services – like singing groups or exercises classes – are now being streamed online. These are at set times and are brilliant for helping to add structure to a day at home. Some other examples to try:
    • Join the fabulous Wendy Mitchell for her ‘Web with Wendy’ sessions (the next sessions are 31 March and 2 April). Wendy says of these sessions: “I would like to invite you to a virtual cuppa on the web to discuss anything and everything….no questions out of bounds….”
    • Participate in laughter yoga, designed to put a smile on participants faces during these testing times. Find out more about Everybody Laugh Together on their Facebook page
    • Try some of the numerous virtual tours of museums, galleries, gardens and so much more in the UK and abroad. Do an internet search for the type of virtual tour you are interested in and be immersed in another world.
  • You could also consider modifying some of the things we’ve been asked to do as a family:
    • We’ve had requests for our daughter’s artwork to be sent to some of my care home clients – there is no reason why adult artwork wouldn’t be just as gratefully received. 
    • My writing skills are being requested for everything from pen-pal services to life story research. Again, there is no reason why a person living with dementia at home, supported by their partner or family, couldn’t become a pen-pal for a person in a care home and mutually reminisce together.

Next month I will look more in-depth at how families can cope when their loved one is in a care home in isolation. Until then:

  • Keep safe
  • Stay at home
  • Keep your distance from others
  • Don’t panic buy
  • Look after yourselves
  • And stay well.

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
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