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Protecting Oklahoma Alzheimer's Patients From The Coronavirus Comes At A Price

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Throughout the pandemic, seniors with Alzheimer’s have been some of the most at-risk Oklahomans and the measures taken to protect them come at a cost.

Tom Gent and his brothers have been going to the opera with his mom, Marsue, since they were kids.

“We lived in Cleveland, and we moved to Tulsa in ‘59, about six weeks after I was born,” he said. “And, and they’ve been — I don’t think they’ve missed a single opera from the Tulsa Opera since then.”

When she went into memory care, they kept going as an outing.

“You know, Tulsa Opera’s not even playing now, so I guess she, she could take a miss this time,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic, long-term care facilities have had to implement lockdowns. For Alzheimer’s and dementia patients like Marsue, the isolation used to protect their physical health can further damage their brain health.

“Well, actually, I haven’t actually touched my mother since April,” Gent said. “You know, her memory was, I guess, pretty bad, by then also. She remembered me pretty well, and she, she remembered, like, her mother’s name and I think all of her children. And she remembered my wife’s name and now she’s down to — she can remember my name if you give her enough time.”

“When we talked her into moving in there, she kind of extracted a promise from me — that I wouldn’t stop visiting her,” he said. “You know, I thought that was, you know, that was an easy promise for me. I promise! Of course! Of course I’ll come and visit you. But now I can’t. That’s kind of heartbreaking.”

Mark Fried, the president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association Oklahoma Chapter, says care facilities and even at-home caregivers can be between a rock and a hard place. These patients are some of the highest risk, but also the hardest hit by seclusion.

“People that are living with Alzheimer’s, particularly those in long-term care settings, they’re extremely vulnerable to COVID-19,” he said. “These individuals are older. They live in communal settings, and often they have underlying chronic conditions that put them at a higher risk for the virus. And so with that said, you know, those who contract COVID in these settings, they’re at a greater risk of dying.”

Protecting those patients comes at a price.

“It’s about right now we’re about 17 and a half percent increase in the number of Alzheimer’s deaths and in 2020 compared to the five-year average,” Fried said. “And, you know, there isn’t there isn’t enough definitive data for me to tell you exactly why that is. But the understanding that we have is isolation plays plays a huge, huge role in the declining health of those who are in long-term care settings.”

These issues have existed all year, but will be particularly challenging for families around the holidays. The Alzheimer’s Association put together a resource guide on helping both those with dementia and their families celebrate despite restrictions.

“There’s such a stereotype around older folks in technology — that they can’t do it,” said Erin Powell, the family outreach coordinator for Alzheimer's Association. “And I have not seen that to be true. A lot of them are rocking it. They’re really doing Zoom and Facetime — they’re on it. But I think it can be intimidating, the initial hurdle of getting over. So, you know, having maybe a family member or someone assigned to help with that and making sure they have what they need, that they have the devices that they need that are going to work for them.”

Powell says that during these tough times, people need to keep an eye on caregivers too. She says there are not so obvious ways to help them out. Presents don’t necessarily have to come in boxes.

“Well, right now I’m looking out my window — going and shoveling snow for them or raking leaves, or yard cleanup or stuff where you’re outside, you’re not necessarily having that contact, but you can still do something for them to help,” she said.

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Catherine Sweeney joined StateImpact Oklahoma in July 2020, focusing on health reporting.