FAIRMONT — Since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, individuals living with Alzheimer’s and dementia have been dying in higher numbers than usual based upon five-year averages, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationally, there have been at least 31,047 reported deaths because of Alzheimer’s or another dementia through September.

In West Virginia, there have been 221 deaths through September, which is a 16.6 percent increase from the average.

The state has 39,000 residents aged 65 and older currently living with Alzheimer’s disease.

More research is needed to ascertain why dementia deaths have increased this year, but two leaders of the Alzheimer’s Association of West Virginia believe the COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation required to combat the virus are playing a large role.

“With COVID, we’ve seen a lot of isolation with our seniors, especially those with Alzheimer’s or dementia. It seems this isolation is causing a lot of depression and a failure to thrive in our middle to late-stage patients,” said Teresa Morris, program director for the state association.

Forty two percent of residents in the nation’s residential care facilities today are living with Alzheimer’s or dementia, while 48 percent of nursing home residents have the diseases, according to the publication “Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.”

Morris said Alzheimer’s patients are healthiest when they receive frequent interpersonal communication.

“There’s research that shows they need communication, they need touches and hugs. With COVID, they’ve likely not been able to have many visitors, so they’re not getting the one-on-one communication that’s vital,” she said. “I’ve talked with families who haven’t been able to see their loved ones since March.”

Individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia who live alone or with loved ones, Morris recommends a few activities than can be beneficial.

“It’s important for them to maintain a normal schedule and have opportunities for personal interaction. That can be simply sitting and looking through a photo album, or reading a newspaper, or even watching a YouTube video. Anything that engages the person with the disease is very important,” Morris said.

If an Alzheimer patient is confined to a care home, where visitation during the pandemic has often been curtailed or prohibited, Morris stressed loved ones should find a way to maintain frequent contact.

“If your loved one is in a facility, reach out to them. Double-check the visitation policy to see what kind of isolation level the facility has,” she said. “Many places permit window visits. Others are doing drive-by visits where staff will take the resident outside where they can visit with loved ones who remain inside a car with an adequate level of social distancing. Facetime conversations or phone calls are good. Anything to maintain some level of communication helps.”

Sharon Rotenberry, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association of West Virginia, said consistency of routine is important to a patient’s health, but the pandemic has drastically altered life’s routines.

“Since March, what was once consistent has changed. For instance, it’s difficult for those with Alzheimer’s to understand the sudden need for masks or excessive hand-washing,” Rotenberry said. “The typical things that help keep everyone safe are hard to spring upon someone who may have forgotten this pandemic is going on or are in a different time period mentally when they wake up.”

Rotenberry said face masks can also be confusing for those with dementia.

“It’s hard for Alzheimer’s patients when they can’t see someone’s face. When caregivers in masks come into a patient’s home, where they’re required to wear them, it can be quite confusing,” she said.

Like others, Rotenberry hopes the pandemic can be better controlled or alleviated soon, but said she worries the upcoming holiday season — and a lack of contact with friends and family during this time — could lead to more depression among Alzheimer’s patients.

“The disease is challenging for everyone under the best of circumstances, but the holidays are going to be even more so,” she said. “We’re hopeful Alzheimer’s patients can go back to seeing and enjoying their loved ones in a more normal fashion soon. But if the pandemic remains, family members should start preparing now for ways to include them.”

Rotenberry urged persons with questions about how to best protect their loved ones with dementia to contact the Alzheimer’s Association’s helpline, which can be reached anytime at 800-272-3900.

“Please don’t hesitate to call us. You will get a live person always and we’ll be happy to help,” she said.

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