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Coronavirus Precautions Pose A Particular Challenge For Alzheimer's Patients

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The threat of COVID-19 has separated many people living with Alzheimer's disease from their loved ones. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports the problem is most obvious in nursing homes and assisted living facilities that have placed strict limits on visitors.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Before coronavirus, Ken Gregersen spent most days with his wife, Evie. She has severe Alzheimer's and lives in a care facility near Des Moines, Iowa.

KEN GREGERSEN: I still feel like I was her caregiver because I would go and give her her breakfast, lunch and dinner practically every day.

HAMILTON: Then, several weeks ago, the facility began turning away visitors, including family members.

GREGERSEN: It's a challenge because we're a very close couple. We've been married 67 years. And so it was very important for me to see her, but I haven't been able to.

HAMILTON: So Gregersen, who is 88, settles for virtual visits two or three times a week. A nurse sets up a FaceTime video chat.

GREGERSEN: She's at the point where she doesn't open her eyes or she doesn't talk. But I hope she recognizes my voice when I talk to her.

HAMILTON: Gregersen says the Alzheimer's patients in his wife's facility are especially vulnerable to coronavirus and not just because of their age.

GREGERSEN: Most of them would not understand the need for washing hands or other things that you have to avoid with the virus.

HAMILTON: So as hard as the separation is, Gregersen supports the decision to keep visitors away.

GREGERSEN: Even though I would love to be able to be with her and see her and feed her and give her a hug, I understand because if coronavirus came into the facility, it could be rampant.

HAMILTON: There are more than a million Alzheimer's patients in care facilities in the U.S. And Beth Kallmyer, vice president of care and support at the Alzheimer's Association, says many family members are looking for advice.

BETH KALLMYER: We've gotten a lot of calls on our helpline where people are unable to visit their family member who is living in an assisted living or in a nursing home, and it's really devastating to them.

HAMILTON: Kallmyer says helpline advisers often suggest families work with a care facility to find new ways of communicating with a resident.

KALLMYER: They might need help dialing a phone. But once you get them on the phone, they might be OK. And then you can arrange a phone call or a video chat if that's possible.

HAMILTON: If that's not possible, Kallmyer says families should get regular updates from workers caring for the patient. She says people with severe Alzheimer's may be unable to understand the ongoing pandemic, but many will be aware that something is wrong.

KALLMYER: Give them the information that you think that they can take in, and then just respond to them on an emotional level. Make sure that you talk to them about, you're going to be OK, we're going to get through this - just like you would for anyone else.

HAMILTON: Kallmyer says even Alzheimer's patients who can no longer communicate may take comfort in reassuring words from a loved one.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.