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How to Help People With Memory Loss Stay Safe From the Coronavirus

In the new normal of life during a pandemic, we know that people with chronic health conditions and the elderly are at a higher risk of contracting and experiencing severe symptoms of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. If you care for someone with dementia, or another memory loss disability, you may be concerned that your loved one’s condition could affect the transmission and spread of the virus.

The good news is that, at this time, there is no evidence showing that a diagnosis of dementia alone makes a body more likely to contract the coronavirus. Even so, certain behaviors of individuals with dementia or memory loss may make them more susceptible to contracting and spreading the illness. For this reason, it is important to explore strategies used in activities of daily living that help combat this pandemic and its spread throughout the community.

Perhaps you don’t know anyone with dementia  —  this should still matter to you. People who are elderly and live with dementia are just as worthy of saving from COVID-19, and the methods detailed below are equally useful for survivors of brain injury, stroke, and other disabilities that affect memory and daily living skills.

It is vital to protect your loved one from contracting and spreading the virus. For caregivers of people with memory loss, you must first break down the most important methods for fighting the spread of the virus. From there, you can dissect how these strategies are  —  or aren’t  —  currently part of your loved one’s activities of daily living, so you can implement approaches to meet those needs while compensating for the effects of the person’s disability.

For the coronavirus, one of the strategies medical professionals have urged as essential in combating the spread of the illness is for everyone to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds, multiple times a day, with warm water and soap. In focusing on this one strategy  —  washing your hands  —  there are many ways individuals with memory loss could be at risk. Family members with dementia or brain injury might not remember to wash their hands, or could forget to wash their hands for 20 full seconds, or require intervention to make sure they wash their hands for 20 full seconds with warm water and antibacterial soap. There are some tips caregivers can use to make sure a person with memory loss is able to follow protective measures.

For any advised protective method, complete that task on your own, while recording yourself completing the task. Start the video with you entering the location where the person with memory loss normally completes the task. Watch the video and write down every big or small step you complete in the process. Here’s how you could start breaking down the task of washing your hands:

1. Walk into the bathroom
2. Turn on the light
3. Walk to the sink
4. Turn the sink on
5. Turn the water to a warm setting
6. Put your hands in the water
7. Take your hands out of the water
8. Put soap in your hands
9. Rub the soap all over your hands, in between fingers, and over and under fingernails
10. Rinse soap from hands with water
11. Dry hands with a clean paper towel
12. Throw the used paper towel in the garbage

Now that you’ve created a list, watch your loved one do the task without prompting or help from anyone else. Pay close attention  —  this can be done in a subtle way, without alerting them to your watching eye. Was there a step that was forgotten? Can that step be achieved by simply talking to the person about it? Gentle reminders can be effective for some. If more detailed measures are needed, you could write a checklist of the steps and post it on the mirror above the sink in the bathroom.

Was the timing an issue? You could keep a timer in the bathroom next to the sink and have the person turn it to 25–30 seconds before starting to wash. You could hang a clock in the bathroom and ask them to watch the clock. After they see 30 seconds pass, they can stop washing (30 seconds is easier to track on a traditional clock for some people with cognitive conditions).

You might be thinking, “My mom/dad/patient is going to hate this.” There are different approaches to handling that. You could say, “I know it’s annoying, but the kids and I want you around and I don’t want you to get the virus from being around us or vice versa.” You could also say, “Just humor me, it’s because I love you.” Maybe you are a medical professional at a nursing home, you could remind the person, “Your family needs you. They want to see you once this pandemic has passed, and it’s my job to help with that.” At the very least, you could talk about the needed steps for washing hands and then attach post-it notes or a pictured drawing on the mirror by the sink. You could also place the same instructions in all the rooms of your house or facility, to show it’s not just for the person with dementia  —  it’s truly for everyone’s benefit.

Regardless, you must be vigilant to protect yourself, your family and your community. If you have concerns about a person with dementia or memory loss, and the short-term and long-term care needed throughout the evolution of the coronavirus, seek out assistance from disability counselors and professionals in adapting to the pandemic with a disability. Contact your state’s vocational rehabilitation agency and your local community mental health agency.

People with disabilities are just as worthy of care and preservation. Loved ones with dementia or brain injury deserve loving, holistic care  —  now and always. If our communities only care about protecting those without disabilities, we will never slow the spread.

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty image by Mheim 3011.