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COVID-19: New Zealand’s Dementia Community Struggling

As the true weight of COVID-19 settles in, it is bringing issues around dementia into sharp focus, with Dementia New Zealand Chief Executive Paul Sullivan deeply concerned about social isolation, especially those with limited or no technology.

“Social isolation can be an issue for our clients and their caregivers at the best of times,” says Sullivan. “In the recent lockdown it has become especially tough.

“Physically isolated from friends and other people outside their ‘bubble’ means much-needed social stimulation is limited and there are some clients who do not have access to digital media or struggle to interact with it.”

For households fortunate enough to get online, a range of options have been put in place to keep up the contact, including information sheets with tips for staying well and engaged, emails, social media updates and interactive websites. There are also online daily updates, exercise videos, regular phone calls and mail outs.

Dementia New Zealand's affiliates are doing most of the contacting, with groups of trained volunteers helping-out as “phone companions”.

“We are there to listen, to identify if there are problems emerging and to arrange support if intervention is required,” says Sullivan. “That means to identify those who are particularly vulnerable and alert both DHBs and Police when needed, to support people’s ability to stay at home, or get any other support they need.” Dementia New Zealand’s six affiliates collectively support 70 percent of the country.

“Our thoughts go out to the residents and families of the rest homes affected by COVID-19. Many of the residents in dementia secure units will have been clients of ours at some time. It can be very difficult for residents with dementia to understand what is happening and distressing for residents and families alike when routine and reassuring contact cannot be maintained.”

Sullivan said it was a challenging time for dementia services and all not-for-profits providing community-based services. “But it’s really challenging for the whole dementia community. It’s crucial that we keep up our relationships and maintain our support. To that end we recommend that people affected by dementia – including family and friends, make contact with their local dementia organisation.”

How to support people with dementia and their caregivers:

· Zoom, Skype or use other video conferencing technology, but check what is the best time of day and that this will not cause anxiety

· Speak on the phone

· Send a letter or card using simple language

· Record voice-message or a story being read

· Offer to help with shopping

· Do some of their favourite baking

· Research and provide links to websites that provide virtual travel, music and performance, puzzles, games, exercise routines and other activities.

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