I think it’s safe to say that COVID-19 has thrown everyone a curveball. In a matter of a few short weeks, our society as we know it has been completely altered. And while it may only have been a few short weeks, it somehow feels like it’s been much longer. Routines are completely upended, we’re all glued to the news and social media updates, and we’re attempting to keep up with the constantly changing guidelines and recommendations.  For you and I, it can feel exhausting and tiresome.


How does it feel for someone who has dementia?


Depending upon which stage of dementia someone is in, their ability to fully comprehend the pandemic will be impacted. For someone in the very early stages of dementia, they may be managing to live independently but may require notes posted on every door reminding them to remain at home.


For someone who is much more progressed in their dementia journey, such notes would not be effective.  Attempting to comprehend a world-wide pandemic would be quite difficult, if not impossible. You and I may have difficulty fully comprehending the scope and impact of COVID-19, and we have the benefit of our brain still providing executive functioning with insight and reasoning and processing. For someone whose dementia has impaired their brain functions, it is not fair to ask their brain to process information that requires interconnected executive functions.


For someone with advanced dementia, comprehending the pandemic is further complicated by the fact that there is no context for a global pandemic that is easily relatable. They do not have life experience that is easily understood.  The closest comparison would have been the Spanish Influenza, but even that was before their lifetime, or certainly before their own lived experience and memory. While they may have heard stories from their parents, it is unlikely that the long-term memory would be vivid enough to remain without lived experience to coalesce the memory.


So, for those with advanced dementia, trying to understand a global pandemic is very challenging. But that does not mean that they are unaffected by the information of the pandemic, as we all are.


While the facts of the pandemic might be difficult to comprehend, people with dementia are often highly attuned to emotions.  The content of a conversation or a news story may be difficult to follow, but the underlying emotions are abundantly evident.  So, while a person with dementia may not be able to recite the number of local cases or even recognize that people are sick in the hospital, what they can feel is the anxiety, nervousness, sense of helplessness and fear of the unknown.


These emotions are evident on newscasts and probably seep through your own interactions more than you realize.  If you’re discussing the pandemic with someone else, your brain is distracted by the content of the conversation—the number of cases, which protocol has been updated, what to do next. You may be subliminally processing some level of emotion, but the content of the conversation has your brain focused on facts more than emotion.


Someone with dementia who is observing that conversation is experiencing it quite differently.  Their brain is not able to process the facts; they are left strictly observing and absorbing the emotions. They are reading the uncertainty and fear; they can hear the anxiety and stress. They recognize and may begin to reflect these emotions, but do not recognize the source of the emotions and cannot connect it to the pandemic.


Just because someone does not remember the details around the pandemic does not mean that they are failing to process the situation. They are processing all the emotions that you are; they are just missing the context for the cause of the emotions…which makes the emotions even more upsetting.


It is important to recognize that the emotional experience is always valid—whether someone has dementia or not.  The emotions are always real, even if the source of the emotion is not fully understood.  Even though your loved one does not know the latest update about COVID-19, they are likely still processing many complex emotions and need your reassurance now more than ever.


Families require professionals who are trained and equipped to assist those with dementia during difficult times like these.  Caregivers to the elderly are an essential service and can continue to provide professional dementia support.  For more information on how to support a loved one through this crisis, please contact us at 519 954 2480.

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Chloe Hamilton
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