Explaining Covid-19 to people with dementia

Everyone is different, and we need to tailor our responses to individual circumstances. In most types of dementia, the storage of new facts in the person’s memory becomes increasingly patchy. However, their memory still retains the feelings that went with those missing facts. This means that if you tell the person something alarming, they may register the alarm without the message, so repeatedly trying to explain the details may be unhelpful. Dementia causes anxiety, and stress interferes with memory function, so that makes things worse.

A local day centre, befriending scheme or other group who knows the person should be the first point of contact for practical help, otherwise see the local council website or ring an established local organisation eg Age Concern.

I am often asked for advice and here are a few questions that have come up recently:

Q. I’m self-isolating after contact with Covid-19. Mum has carers but I want to keep in touch.
A. Try to check in at least once a day by phone, Facetime, Skype etc – perhaps say ‘I’d like to practise using this new toy – will you help me?’ Ask the carer or a volunteer to help set it up.

Q. Grandad lives with us and keeps forgetting the precautions and getting flustered. How can I make him remember?
A. Try to find other/additional reasons for making changes that make sense to him. Repeatedly threatening dire consequences may just ramp up his anxiety.

Q. Dad keeps saying it’s just Asian flu and he’s had worse, so he won’t listen to the advice.
A. ‘Covid-19’ might not mean anything but ‘pneumonia’ gives a better idea of what it is.

Q. Auntie’s care home is closed to visitors. She keeps asking why we’ve stopped coming to see her.
A. Whether you are self-isolating or social distancing, ‘quarantine’ will be a more familiar term from scarlet fever outbreaks in the past. Ask the home about their arrangements for ‘virtual visiting’ and see Adam Purnell’s 25.03.2020 blogpost for John’s Campaign to see how care homes can keep clients in touch with their families.

Q. My neighbour lives on her own and goes out several times a day. We tried to explain but she just got upset and went out anyway.
A. Her anxiety may have driven her to go out in search of comfort and reassurance. A notice inside her front door may help:
“Most shops are closed today. Ring ____ if you need anything.”
“If anyone comes to the door, don’t let them in or give them anything, ring ____”

For further advice and information about online training and information sessions or to purchase our booklet of practical tips, see Understanding Dementia or ring 0774 350 1149. Face-to-face presentations and fundraising events are currently suspended – join our mailing list so we can let you know when they are happening; we also plan to set up online sessions soon.

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