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Using innovation to combat social isolation for individuals living with dementia

Using innovation to combat social isolation for individuals living with dementia  

Beth Monaco, 
Community Support Services Program Manager 

Earlier this month, we began our second lockdown since COVID-19 came to Canada in March 2020. In that time, social isolation has become our new normal. In that isolation we have realized how for all our lives we have taken for granted people and resources that, unknowingly at the time, were helping us get through our days and making us feel human and supported.

For people living with dementia and their loved ones, some level of social isolation has been a part of their normal day-to-day lives well before COVID hit. Typically, social interaction becomes more of a challenge causing people living with dementia to avoid it. Often once friends and family learn of a dementia diagnosis the circle of support shrinks. Care partners also experience social isolation, mostly due to the competing demands of caregiving, work, and other necessary duties. This pandemic has brought new challenges for people living with dementia and their care partners. 

Currently the weekly routine of attending in-person programs and services such as Adult Day Programs, support groups, fitness classes, personal hobbies, etc. are no longer available.  These differences have changed some long-standing and vital routines that can help people living with dementia maintain health, happiness, reduce isolation and combat the progression of the disease. These regular schedules also provide care partners a much needed break to re-charge and take some time for themselves. 

Caregiving and COVID Adult Day Program client David and his wife and care partner Barb.

Caregiving is under-recognized within our healthcare system. We often consider care beginning and ending in hospitals and clinics, but so much of keeping people in our communities healthy and out of long-term care and hospital falls on their families and loved ones.

People rarely if ever intend to go from spouse or child to full-time care partner. Initially they planned a future together, but after a dementia diagnosis their new reality becomes more day-to-day. As the disease progresses, the increased demands on the care partner result in their own health challenges and burnout. Of the 747,000 people living with dementia in Canada, 61% of them live at home — and they require support while staying there. This responsibility more often than not falls on family and loved ones, who spend 342 million hours a year on care tasks, the equivalent of more than 171,000 full-time employees. Of the care partners providing care to a loved one living with dementia 45% have expressed distress versus 26% of people supporting those with other conditions.

Taking the daily reality of dementia and adding the layer of COVID on top of it changes so much. We all have felt the impact of COVID on our mental health as we have lost our ability to get out and connect with our communities and one another. This lack of connection for a family living with dementia also means a lack of support and a lack of respite. Knowing what COVID would mean to our clients and their families, we had to figure out a way to continue to providing support, and quickly.

Opportunity from Crisis

Carefor offers the Regions’ largest and most popular Adult Day Programs, specifically geared for individuals living with dementia through social recreational programs. With the news of the global pandemic here in Ottawa, we had to make the difficult decision to close all of our in-person Adult Day Programs. However, as a team we knew we needed to uncover alternative ways to engage, stimulate and connect with our clients and families.  We wanted to Stay Connected!

In an effort to help alleviate social isolation and keep clients and care partners engaged on a daily basis, our five Adult Day Programs joined together to shift quickly and redevelop our programs through online and teleconferencing platforms. Ingenuity and creativity helped us maneuver through these unusual times.

With an abundance of patience, our day program teams reached out, encouraged and provided technical support to care partners and clients on how best to connect online via this new platform.  For those without technology accessible to them, staff developed programs that could be done over the phone on an individual basis or in a very small groups.

Our programs are now bubbling with good times and lots of laughs! The stimulating activities occur five days a week, four times a day.  Every week, we offer activities such as exercise, group discussions, trivia, music and singalongs, themed presentations, word games, and bingo – all virtually!

Our clients and care partners receive the daily activities list with accompanying links the day before, and they can join as many activities as they want.  During this time, some care partners take a break by reading a book, doing some exercise, cooking, etc. while other care partners choose to join the programs, enjoying the social interaction and connection they feel.

This familiarity and routine can help reassure clients by offering a sense of purpose, bringing more meaning to their day that might otherwise seem long and empty.  

Technology and Caregiving

Technology in healthcare has a long and well-documented history, but technology as a tool for caregiving is much more recent. One thing COVID has shown us is its value and a glimpse at its possible future.  With the boom of platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, people are more and better connected than ever before. Geography becomes less important, and as we become more comfortable connecting through our computers and phones, we’re learning how to use these technologies in new and creative ways.

At the moment, Carefor is in the early stages of developing a platform with the Champlain Community Support Network that supports people living with dementia and care partners. Who knows where this will take us? What came on as a crisis has turned into an opportunity to improve our programs and services, and therefore our clients’ and their care partners’ lives, in ways that may not have been possible for years without the urgency of COVID-19.

These online programs will never replace our in person programs; the sounds and sights of a group of individuals laughing, dancing and singing together will always be a heart-warming and moving sight.  But during these unprecedented times, we all are staying connected at home so we can gather in person again when this is over.