Why dementia and Covid are such a deadly combination

A survey by the Alzheimer’s Society suggests a possible cause, with 79 per cent of the 128 care homes surveyed finding that lack of physical contact and the end of family visits was causing a deterioration in the health and wellbeing of their residents with dementia.

“The direct deaths from Covid are fairly easy to understand but there are so many excess deaths which are harder to explain,” says Tim Beanland, Head of Knowledge at the Alzheimer’s Society. “With dementia, we know it’s so important to stay physically, mentally and socially active. A good care home is a lively place with a lot going on but Covid meant residents were often zoned into one section with all the usual activities withdrawn. Access to health services and GPs, especially at the beginning, were also limited. Add to this the lack of family visits and scary-looking PPE and dementia sufferers can become depressed and even stop eating and just ‘give up’ – all leading to a higher mortality rate.”

Julia Jones, co-founder of John’s Campaign, which was set up in 2014 to campaign for the right of people with dementia to be supported by family carers, believes that the disconnection and isolation as a result of the Covid shutdown is causing huge amounts of suffering.

“If your brain is being attacked by this illness, the way to keep connected is by the support of your loved ones and family,” says Jones. “No one can replace that connection with a spouse, say, of 50 years who is really special to that person. Staff can look after the physical aspect of care but family looks after their wellbeing and that connectedness is profound.”

Jones believes that relatives should be part of the solution – even in the time of pandemic – and can even support care homes when they’re under so much stress from staff absences. “The portcullis effect in care homes has been devastating and there should be more thinking around how to let visitors in, otherwise these tragedies may continue,” she says.

Mike Lowe, 67, lost his 92 year-old mother, Dorothy Lowe to Covid on May 6 and still struggles with the fact he wasn’t able to see her for the last two months of her life. 

“The home locked down very early – around March 10 – and we tried doing Skype calls but her dementia meant she couldn’t understand what was going on,” says Lowe, a former defence electronics engineer, who lives in Edinburgh. “I used to visit her every day and push her by the Union Canal and she had lots of visits from friends – and liked her white wine – which always made her a little brighter. When Covid came into the home, they had to keep her in her room and I know they tried to do their best but the lack of stimulation must have been very hard for her as the care home was short-staffed. But what I could do about it? I felt helpless.”

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