Pandemic isolation has sped up cognitive decline of loved ones, say caregivers

·3 min read

Some caregivers in Nova Scotia say the social isolation brought on by the pandemic has eroded the cognitive abilities of their loved ones.

Halifax's Myrete Milne has seen this quick mental decline first hand. She helps take care of her husband, Jim, whose brain was damaged by a stroke.

Before the pandemic hit, Milne would visit Jim in his long-term care facility every day.

She would spend up to three hours with him. Along with feeding him, she would go over the alphabet and play games to keep his mind and body active.

When COVID-19 struck, and long-term care facilities were locked down, Milne couldn't see her husband for weeks.

When the facilities reopened, Jim wasn't the same.

She said the man who used to play games and doodle on a dry erase board was gone.

"There were times … he wouldn't even take the pen from me. Other times when I tried to … get him to throw the ball and things like that he wouldn't even try.

"I feel again the lack of contact with a loved one is definitely pushing things downhill."

Milne doesn't believe Jim's condition would have worsened as fast if more social contact had been available.

That's certainly possible, according to Dr. Jackie Kinley, a psychiatrist and founder of the Atlantic Institute for Resilience.

She said isolation can lead to cognitive decline in many vulnerable populations, including seniors and people with dementia.

Submitted by Dr. Jackie Kinley
Submitted by Dr. Jackie Kinley

Humans are a social species and we require connections with others to be healthy, said Kinley.

"We need to feel loved and comforted," she said. "We need that engagement. With the loss of that … we're just not exercising our mental abilities, our mental functioning, and when we don't exercise things we know that sometimes they can weaken and we're not quite as sharp as we may have normally been."

The Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia has been fielding calls from people who are experiencing this.

"Anecdotally, we are hearing that some people feel that either themselves or the person they're caring for, their abilities have decreased, their cognitive abilities have decreased during the pandemic," said Linda Bird, the organization's director of programs and services.

Radio-Canada
Radio-Canada

Despite the calls, it's not entirely clear if the cognitive decline is actually being caused by isolation, said Bird.

Dementia and Alzheimer's worsen with time, so it's hard to determine if a person has declined because of isolation or simply as a normal part of their condition, she said.

"Whether COVID impacted their rate of decline is an excellent area of research, that I hope the researchers are following up on it."

Baddeck's Wendy Burns Morrison has no doubt the isolation took a toll on her husband, who has Lewy body dementia.

Most of his social activities evaporated when the pandemic hit and the lack of human contact put him into a deep depression, she said.

"For several months for him to smile would have been totally amazing and it was simply because the connections weren't there," said Burns Morrison.

Submitted Wendy Burns Morrison
Submitted Wendy Burns Morrison

It's not just seniors and those with dementia who have had their cognitive abilities weaken due to the isolation, said Kinley. Many otherwise healthy people are experiencing the same thing, she said.

"Folks just don't have the interaction they need to stay healthy and well, and happy, too," said Kinley.

"If we recognize that we are all human, we're all vulnerable, we all need to exercise our minds right, we need to make sure we're staying active in building our mental fitness, and that will keep us healthy and resilient throughout this."

The best way for people to do that is by reaching out to others to talk, whether in person or over the phone, she said.

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