Families visiting older relatives or those with dementia for Easter may want to plan ahead

AJ Dome, The Manhattan Mercury, Kan.
·4 min read

Apr. 1—Some families may visit their older relatives for the first time in a long time for Easter this weekend. If you're planning to see a loved one who is in a nursing home or who has dementia, you may want to plan ahead.

Juliette Bradley, state director of communications for the Alzheimer's Association Kansas chapter, said she would not encourage visits to senior living facilities unless one is fully vaccinated.

In Manhattan, senior living facilities such as Meadowlark, Stoneybrook Retirement Community and Homestead Assisted Living require families to schedule their visits ahead of time, and to abide by COVID-19 protocols. Visitors also will have to fill out a health screening upon arrival.

Bradley said the first thing people should do if they plan on visiting their older loved ones is to check the COVID-19 protocols at the facility they live in, as they might have limits on how long visitors can stay and how many can see a person at a given time.

Bradley also said people who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's disease may not have a full understanding of what the pandemic is or how it is affecting the world around them, so family visits may mean some surprises for them.

Bradley said her organization has found evidence that suggests isolation during the pandemic has taken more of a drastic toll on individuals with dementia versus those without.

"We want to remind people of some things they can do or be mindful of while visiting their loved one," Bradley said. "We want people to plan and prepare before they go."

Bradley said it might be difficult for older people with dementia to identify their family members through masks.

"When you get there, you'll likely be wearing a mask," Bradley said. "Maybe take a photo with you of you and that person, so they can recall who you are."

Bradley said people shouldn't ask the person, "Do you remember me?" or similar questions.

"It's not something (people with dementia) want to hear, and it's also confusing," Bradley said. "Instead, just be very factual, maybe not ask questions to that degree, but just have a conversation."

Bradley said a person with dementia may be unpredictable, and coupled with being isolated for a year, that can result in an unexpected behavior or attitude.

"You simply need to be willing to listen to that person, learn what their fears are if they have any, and address them in the moment," Bradley said. "I would probably suggest not even talking to them about vaccines or anything related; it kind of goes into a conversation that could heighten their stress level, and there isn't any reason to do that."

According to the Alzheimer's Association, the number of dementia-related deaths in Kansas during the pandemic is 19.5% higher than average, with 519 more deaths recorded because of dementia in 2020. In 2019, the number of deaths from Alzheimer's disease in the state was 839. About 55,000 Kansans over the age of 65 live with Alzheimer's, and that number is expected to climb to 62,000 by the year 2025.

Bradley said while it's extremely difficult for some people to handle, it's actually OK if their loved one does not remember them when they visit.

"If you can go with whatever storyline they have, even if they think you're someone else, try not to be upset about that," Bradley said. "Try carrying on with a distraction, a change of subject."

Bradley said there are ways to make the time and conversation easier for everybody, and that silence can be awkward but it's not necessarily a bad thing.

"Just being with the person is important," Bradley said. "Holding the person's hand is strongly encouraged if it's okay to do so."

Bradley said it's important to live in the person's world and not correct them when they become confused.

"More than anything we just need to try to be ourselves when we're around people with dementia," Bradley said. "Just staying calm, being with the person, and keeping expectations fairly low for that first visit are important."