“People who are alone are more likely to become demented earlier,” says Borna Bonakdarpour, an assistant neurology professor at Northwestern University’s medical school. “It’s not anything we didn’t know before the pandemic.”
Scientists have long understood that social stimulation can slow the progression of memory loss in dementia patients. “It doesn’t prevent the disease or reverse the disease, but they have a slower decline in their memory testing. We know there are benefits to the brain from stimulation,” says James Leverenz, the director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.
Neurologists, including Bonakdarpour, have reported a rapid decline in their memory-loss patients due to pandemic isolation. Some patients have become agitated and violent. Others have advanced quickly through the progressive stages of Alzheimer’s.
“I’ve seen horrible things with my patients, unfortunately,” Bonakdarpour told me.
Day-facility directors have reported similar declines. Before the pandemic, LIAD, which Joe Licata attended, hosted about 25 to 30 participants each day for programming. Participants lived at home with their family and were brought to the facility to engage in activities, including singing in a choir on Sundays. The center also provided in-home visits, to give family members a break from caretaking.
After the center was forced to close due to pandemic restrictions, it provided virtual programming but found that the interactions were not the same. By October, as many as 25 percent of the center’s 175 weekly participants had declined to the point of needing residential care, according to Tori Cohen, LIAD’s executive director and a licensed clinical social worker.
As humans, we need to socialize to survive, but social contact is exactly what might kill us during the pandemic. This has been the basic tension of the past year; everyone has felt it to some extent. Memory-loss patients face the same dilemma, but with greater stakes.
Despite government mandates, the twin blows of dementia and the coronavirus have come together for some families. Michele Cook, who lives in Huntersville, North Carolina, lost her father in May 2020. He had Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, which was diagnosed in August 2019, after his family noticed that he was hard of hearing, stumbled when he walked, and fell several times. Cook considered bringing in a part-time helper, and she contacted an at-home-care company. A nurse came to evaluate her father, saw a tremor in his hand, and directed the family to take him to the emergency room.
“I helped my mom load him into the car to go to the hospital, and he never came home,” Cook told me.
The family initially thought he would temporarily stay in an assisted-living facility for physical therapy. But he soon required two-person assistance to walk and move. The facility became his permanent home.