Isolation could be factor in Alzheimer's death spike amid pandemic: 'I had a lot of sleepless nights'

Posted at 11:42 PM, Mar 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-20 09:19:39-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The death rate in Virginians living with Alzheimer's and dementia has spiked amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report by the Alzheimer's Association.

A 2021 Alzheimer’s Association report showed about 42,000 more deaths from the disease across the country in 2020 compared to averages over the previous five years.

In Virginia, the past year had brought an increase of more than 1,500 deaths, according to that same report.

"When looking at the graph on a monthly basis, you can actually see that spike really begins in March of 2020 when COVID-19 really hit the United States," said Marie Kolendo, Executive Director of the Greater Richmond Alzheimer's Association.

Kolendo said they were still working to determine exactly what's caused the uptick in deaths -- but believed it to be a combination of factors, such as vulnerability to the COVID virus, reduced access to healthcare, disruption in routine and the impact of social isolation.

"When someone’s living with Alzheimer's Disease, routine is very important to them," said Kolendo.

Kate Turner understands that first-hand. She's the caretaker of her mother, Maxine Williams, who was first diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2017.

Since then, Turner said her mom had been living in an assisted living community, enjoying regular visits from family, and days out singing in the Joyful Voices Community Chorus for Singers with Alzheimer's or Dementia.

"It was just nice for Mom, she just got out. Everyone there is very warm and welcoming," said Turner.

But Turner said that all changed when COVID hit in the spring.

"I had a lot of sleepless nights," Turner said. "Just, you know, tried to explain to her what was going on, she didn't fully comprehend, of course, that I couldn't come in, that she couldn't go out."

Turner said that equated to a lot of window visits and phone calls, and although her mom remained relatively upbeat, Turner said she had noticed a cognitive decline.

"It just feels like to me that like Alzheimer's and COVID were sort of a perfect storm," Turner said.

Whether that cognitive decline was the disease taking its course, or the impacts of isolation, Turner said she’d never know for sure, but suspected it was a combination of the two.

With Williams now fully vaccinated, Turner said they're cherishing their time together, and looking forward to a little bit of normalcy.

"My hope is just to spend a lot of time with her," Turner said. "Just making the moments count."

Kolendo said they'd seen an uptick in calls to the Alzheimer's Association 24/7 helpline. She advised families in need of support to reach out at 800-272-3900.

"On the other end of that phone, are social workers, trained clinicians, to help individuals and families specifically either living with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, as well as caring for individuals. We have support groups, we have care consultations. Reach out for help. That's the first thing is don't be afraid," Kolendo said.