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Dementia patients in Manitoba care homes struggling with health declines amid COVID-19

Click to play video 'COVID-19 taking an extra toll on those with dementia' COVID-19 taking an extra toll on those with dementia
Those caring for a loved one with dementia say it's difficult to explain to them why things are different now, in addition to the added restrictions that make it hard to be together. Global's Brittany Greenslade has the story – Oct 29, 2020

COVID-19 has been a struggle for many people but it is hitting Manitoba seniors particularly hard — especially those in care homes living with Alzheimer’s.

There are 23,000 Manitobans who live with a form of Alzheimer’s or dementia, including Brad McIntosh’s 92-year-old mom Marjory, who lives in the River East Personal Care Home.

“She struggles a lot when she sees myself, when I come in, with the mask the goggles,” McIntosh said. “Everything is different there for her now.”

Read more: Caring for a loved one with dementia during COVID-19 extra challenging, says expert

Marjory has been living with her diagnosis for nearly five years but her son said he is noticing a big decline in her health since the start of the pandemic.

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“There has been a lot of decline with my mom, more confusion,” he said. “Lately she’s been confusing me as her older brother or her dad.”

Marjory McIntosh has been living with her Alzheimer’s diagnosis since 2016.
Marjory McIntosh has been living with her Alzheimer’s diagnosis since 2016. Brad McIntosh/Supplied

The Alzheimer’s Society of Manitoba said it is seeing a faster decline in patients’ health because of the restrictions and lockdowns.

“Families are also seeing, in many cases, big changes in the person that they are visiting,” program director Erin Crawford said.

“They do see declines that they might not have expected to see for a while longer.”

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With Alzheimer’s, dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. But Crawford said they are seeing the disease progress more rapidly in many patients who are currently living in care homes and unable to do daily things they normally would.

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“You lose engagement, you lose stimulation, you lose your physical activity, that social activity,” Crawford said. “It does have a negative effect on those who have dementia.”

Beyond not being able to see family and loved ones in person, the added coronavirus protocols are adding extra confusion for dementia patients who already struggle with memory and recognition.

“Their loved one often doesn’t understand why there’s been changes to the visits, maybe they aren’t getting them anymore,” Crawford said.

When they can visit, the extra precautions are making it hard on their loved one as well. For some patients, recognizing a loved one is made even more difficult when they are wearing a mask covering half their face.

Read more: Coronavirus — Parkview Place, Manitoba’s deadliest care home outbreak, in ‘staffing crisis’

“There’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of worry. They can’t touch each other, they can’t hug each other,” Crawford said.

“Those changes, while they might make sense to us, someone with dementia may really struggle to understand.”

The fear of not knowing when the pandemic will be over is also troubling for many in those situations who may have been isolated from their loved ones for months to stop the spread of the virus.

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“Seven months… that’s a lifetime for some of these people,” Crawford said.

The Alzheimer’s Society of Manitoba is offering virtual support for family members who have loved ones that are struggling and also provide a number of tips on how they can make the most out of their virtual visits.