We may not realize it, but loneliness is a health risk. It is an emotional equivalent of physical pain, and even triggers the same responses in the brain. The feeling of loneliness and disconnectedness lets us know that we need to find companionship and security to remain emotionally healthy. Confusion can come easily to dementia patients, and the new circumstances surrounding the pandemic can reinforce the feeling of isolation that often accompanies this disease. Tragically, healthy older adults who experience prolonged feelings of isolation and loneliness can suffer related health consequences, such as premature death, heart disease, and stroke. More in keeping with our subject, older people who are lonely can be up to 20% more likely to develop dementia. This author has coined the word “pandementia” to categorize the effect the coronavirus is having on older adults with respect to cognitive performance.
Health experts contend that between 19% and 43% of adults age 60 and over (and even some over 50) are at risk of poor health due to loneliness. Loneliness can lead to despair, with resultant bouts of inactivity, sleeplessness, smoking and drinking, either loss of appetite or overeating, and bad moods. For the dementia sufferer, the increased isolation due to the pandemic can add to their confusion and fear. Loneliness is also a stress factor that can result in inflammation and disease, further complicating the person’s life.
Healthy individuals have some ability to cope with the dictates of the “new abnormal,” such as masks and social distancing. The ability to manage these situations is important for brain health. Dementia patients may not be able to understand why they need to wear a mask, may be frightened by mask-wearing caretakers and family, and cannot comprehend why the kids don’t come to visit or, if they do, won’t hug or even touch them.
If a person with mild dementia has a daily routine, such as walking with friends, attending church, getting a ride to the market, etc., interfering with that routine removes the stimulation needed to keep the mind as sharp as possible. Virtual visits via the computer can be frustrating for someone who is already in a world of their own. In one instance, a grandmother who was part of a Zoom call for her birthday tried to cut pieces of cake for her online guests.
For the healthier person who endures a prolonged feeling of loneliness during this difficult time, there are some strategies for coping and possibly avoiding the onset of loneliness-induced dementia symptoms. Loneliness is common and normal, and you are not alone, as it were. Older adults who feel more satisfied in their relationships have a 23% lower risk of dementia, while those who feel their relationships are supportive have a 55% lower risk of dementia, compared to those who feel dissatisfied or unsupported in their relationships. Try to focus on the activities you can control. Perhaps you can reach out to friends and family in some new way, and try to reinforce and even repair relationships. Learn something new that you didn’t have time for before. See if there is something you can do to help someone else, like deliver groceries, make masks or little gifts, send notes, walk a neighbor’s dog, or whatever will take your mind off yourself. Don’t become a victim of pandementia!
South Mountain Memory Care focuses on high-quality, personalized care. The brand new building is a stand-alone memory care community, meaning that the entire building, staff, and programs are designed to serve residents with cognitive issues. To ensure person-centered care and attention, we have accommodations for up to 28 residents. The building is divided into two neighborhoods (wings), each offering 10 private suites and 2 semi-private suites. South Mountain Memory Care is located in the Allentown suburb of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, and it is easily accessible from the Lehigh Valley, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. For more information, go to southmountainmemorycare.com/.