April 7, 2020
As calls by government leaders and healthcare professionals for “social distancing” are made to help slow the spread of coronavirus COVID-19, many individuals may struggle with isolation. However, for people living with dementia, social isolation can be even more detrimental to their physical and mental health.
To help relieve those who serve as care partners for loved ones living with dementia, members and volunteers of The Veranda, an activity-based respite program in Gallatin, coordinated an Easter Parade to the homes of its clients in the Sumner County area. The group spent Tuesday, April 7 logging more than 100 miles, stopping at 10 homes and practicing safe-distance measure for short, social check-ins. Wearing protective masks and gloves, they delivered Easter-themed activity baskets and essential paper goods such as paper towels, cups, toilet paper and cleansing items during their brief outdoor visits.
“It’s been more than two weeks since we closed our respite program as the coronavirus threat grew stronger,” said Mary Anne Oglesby-Sutherly, founder and executive director of Veranda Ministries, whose flagship program is The Veranda. “Social interaction and keeping the clients active is such a vital part of our activity program, and two weeks is a long time for families not to have any periods of respite.
“We pitched the parade idea to our families, and they were thrilled at the thought,” she said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to check on our beloved clients and see first-hand, from a safe distance of course, how they were doing.”
Sutherly said she wasn’t sure who received the most benefit from their Veranda Easter Parade—the clients themselves, their family members or those who went on the visits.
“Seeing everyone’s smiles definitely was a bright spot for everyone and a much-needed distraction from all the talk and rightful worry over the virus,” she said.
Sutherly holds triple certifications as trainer, consultant and coach in occupational therapist Teepa Snow’s Positive Approach© to Care (PAC). Snow, who founded PAC in 2005, is a nationally known leading expert in dementia care. An advocate for those with dementia, Sutherly said one of her most concerning issues with COVID-19 is how isolation affects those with dementia.
“Those of us with healthy brains understand the necessary requirements of changing our behavior and routines, adapting our lifestyle in light of the coronavirus,” she said. “For the person with dementia, a steady routine and socialization is critical to their behavior and life, and COVID-19 has disrupted that.
“Their brains can’t easily process disruption. They don’t understand why they can’t see their children, grandkids, their church family or even go out to eat at a restaurant,” Sutherly said. “Their brains are unable to comprehend the health risks associated with those activities right now. So it’s incredibly important that we do what we can to help them and their families during this challenging time.”
Although The Veranda’s respite program at its Gallatin location is on a temporary hold until the COVID-19 crises subsides, Sutherly and her staff remains in contact with their families and is taking advantage of their Facebook page and the program’s online support group to lessen the feeling of isolation.
Two of Sutherly’s PAC mentors, Dr. Beth Nolan in Ada, Michigan, and Melanie Bunn of Raleigh, North Carolina, also share her concern of isolation and people with dementia. Nolan is director of research and policy and serves as a lead mentor and trainer for Teepa Snow’s Positive Approach© to Care. She is a former assistant professor and senior associate director of the Evaluation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health. Bunn is founder of Bunn Consulting, a dementia training specialist for Alzheimer’s North Carolina, trainer with Positive Approach© to Care and faculty/consultant/clinician on four Duke School of Nursing federal grants.
“Feeling alone is different than being alone,” Nolan said. “Studies have shown that social isolation is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline. Even in dementia, a phone call or a gift in the mail can momentarily change a person’s feeling of isolation, and leading to a lasting feeling of inclusion, even for just a little while.”
“We must see people living with dementia as whole beings with physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs that are interwoven to support health,” Bunn said. “Social isolation can potentially limit the body’s immune response, thus increasing risk of infection and reducing recovery.
“This doesn’t mean social distancing isn’t important, it’s critically important, but within a whole community response of promoting social connection,” she said. “This parade that Mary Anne and her volunteers held may do as much to support survival of people living with dementia by meeting social needs as hand washing and masks do in meeting the physical needs.”