Months-long closures in some states have seen severe restrictions on visitors to nursing homes.

So, with lockdowns easy, and if you’ve been vaccinated, you might be planning a happy reunion with your friend or family. If someone in your family has dementia, you may wonder if their symptoms worsened in the lockdown, or if they remember who you are.

Here’s what to look for on your first visit after lockdowns are over, and how to support your loved one afterward. Expect Some Downside Closures could lead to a decrease in the number of people with dementia, especially those living in nursing homes.

Research from lockdowns in 2020 has shown that people with dementia have greater problems with thinking and problem solving. Their behavior and mood worsened. Some studies showed that people were less able to do things at home or take care of themselves.

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Maintaining mental, physical and social activity helps people with dementia keep their minds and thinking. But in lockdown, when people with dementia perform less, they exercise their brains and bodies less. The closures mean not only a ban on visitors to nursing homes, but also limited stimulation from group activities, such as concerts, visits from schools and bus outings.

During the closures, nursing home residents (more than half of whom had dementia) worsened in terms of their thinking and well-being. Residents sometimes did not understand why they could not move freely around the nursing home, and why their loved ones stopped visiting. This led to an increase in behaviors, such as agitation.

After the lockdowns began, there has been an increase in psychiatric drug prescriptions being reported internationally. These medications are used in nursing homes to manage behaviors such as aggression and agitation.

The first visit can be difficult. Some families may be concerned about their first visit after several months to someone with dementia. They may be worried that their loved one is getting worse, or afraid that they won’t recognize them.

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But it can be helpful to think of visits as providing important mental stimulation and human connection to your loved ones, even though the visits may be emotionally difficult for you. Introduce yourself: “Hi Dad, it’s Ali,” if it seems your loved one can’t quite identify you or your name.

Read their reactions to you.

If they need time to warm up with you (which can be frustrating if you’re nearby), talk to someone else who’s there. The person may enjoy your company even if they are not actively involved in the conversation at first.

Then invite them to participate in the conversation by asking them what they think: “How’s the dog doing?” or “I am looking forward to going to the hairdresser, how about you?”.

Set up an activity to do together based on their interests. Take a walk in the park, browse a magazine about the royal family, and sing along to your favorite album.

If the gathering is noisy, find a quiet place to have a one-on-one conversation, as the person may have trouble concentrating when there are several people talking at once. Let them know when you’ll be back because of your long breakup, the ones you love may be too emotional or clingy when you leave.

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Let them know when you’ll be back. You can write it down on their calendar, or on a card to give them. You can also tell the nursing home staff so they can remind them. You can also leave a visual reminder of your visit. This can be a card or a photo, or some flowers with a note.

If possible, go back to your visiting routine.

If you notice a decrease

Families are more likely to notice small or noticeable changes in their loved one’s abilities if they haven’t seen them for several months. This may mean noticing early signs of dementia or worsening symptoms if they’ve already been diagnosed.

So this can be a delicate conversation with your loved one. Many people can be defensive or deny the changes, labeling them as “aging,” and fearing dementia. You may need to have a conversation a few times to get them to see a doctor.

Rehabilitation helps people with dementia. It is therefore worth considering the support services that your loved one may need.

A psychiatrist can help with memory and thinking management strategies; An occupational therapist can help with everyday things at home; An exercise physiologist or physical therapist can help with mobility; A speech therapist can help with communication.

Family caregivers can talk to their loved one’s dementia specialist, or ask your GP about a chronic disease management plan for some subsidized rehabilitation sessions.

Also read: Training and help now virtual for caregivers with dementia

If you are not the main caregiver If you are not the main caregiver for the family, make sure that person has some support. Ask how they feel and what support you can provide.

Caregivers are providing more help during lockdowns for people with dementia who live in the community. This is because there are fewer services on offer, and because people with dementia need help to comply with the restrictions.

Offer to spend time with the person with dementia so the caregiver can get a break. Or take your caregiver to a meal and now loosen up on social time.

(Lee Phi Lu, University of Sydney Sydney)

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