Alzheimer’s Isolation in COVID-19 Times

Assisted living facilities and nursing homes have been hit hard by COVID-19, resulting in total lockdowns with residents and families not able to see each other, some residents even dying under such isolated and lonely circumstances.

My wife Mary was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease over ten years ago and has been living in an assisted living memory care facility for eight years. With my wife not being able to communicate verbally for several years, we have reached a level of nonverbal connection that surpasses what could ever be accomplished verbally…but it takes physical contact and being together to hold each other, look into each other’s eyes, dance, smile and laugh, sing and hum together.

I’ve built up our relationship over these years, seeing her virtually every day, helping her to have good days and know that I’m still with her. She knows I love her and is always happy to be with me. We have good times together and I know these daily interactions have kept her “going” and interactive.

Then it happened…quarantine due to the coronavirus…where we could no longer be with each other at all! Now we haven’t had such contact for several months. This has caused me a lot of anxious ruminations…Without our personal time together, will she now go downhill more quickly? Will she even remember me when I’m able to return? What might she think about my not being there for her? What if she becomes infected?

It’s especially tough on Mary since I’m sure she can’t understand why she’s always in her room or alone at times or why she may not recognize her caregivers because of the masks. I almost hope she’s oblivious to the fact that I’m not there, but I know she misses me. There’s no way she can understand any of what has changed.

I don’t have to worry about her safety and needs because I know she is being well taken care of by the caregivers and other staff. I also know they are doing everything possible to ensure her happiness under the circumstances. I deeply respect and truly admire these people. But I worry about the absence of additional physical and emotional happiness I’ve always brought her on a different level, a void that only I can fill.

Caregivers have called me to “talk” with her at times. Mary and I have been unable to have any kind of real verbal conversations for years, but nonverbal communications have been developed over the years to the point we communicate our love and emotions more visually and physically.

She often hums louder and tries to become more vocal when she hears my voice. We’ve video conferenced a few times; sometimes she seems to look at me on the screen for a few seconds, but like with the phone, she seems confused and I know she needs to be with me physically for the special loving feelings we have shared to be brought out.

I would normally have a very tough time dealing with all this, but a lesson I learned from Mary years ago is helping me through these current tough times. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks occurred and the Iraq war started, our son Jeff’s Marine Corps Reserves unit was called to active duty. He was part of one of the initial groups sent across the border into Iraq doing reconnaissance and other combat operations.

Rick Leventhal, with Fox News, was embedded with the battalion Jeff was in, and he aired live reports on television when he could, so we generally kept the TV on in case there was a special report. I distinctly recall one morning Rick was reporting live, riding in an armored vehicle somewhere in Iraq. He couldn’t provide the location or specifics and we didn’t know if he was with Jeff’s company or not. Suddenly, he was interrupted by loud automatic gunfire. He said something like, “Oh my gosh, we’re under attack.” Then the transmission stopped. No one with the network knew what happened and they couldn’t reconnect with Rick. It was about two hours before he came back on the line to report that the unit had been ambushed, but all Marines were safe and they were on their way again.

These were the longest two hours of my life, and I think I aged a few years. I was a wreck with worry. Mary handled it much better than I did. She told me, “There’s nothing I can do for Jeff in Iraq except pray for him and his safety. I’ve turned over keeping him safe to God and accept Jeff will be okay.” Mary’s prayers worked for her and fortunately our son was okay.

For a combination of reasons I’ve arrived at a place of inner peace about Mary’s and my current situation. I know she’s being well cared for by people she loves and who love her, and that there is absolutely nothing I can do about it except to have phone or video contact whenever possible. I also learned from Mary that there are times when people’s lives are out of our control, and the best…the only…solution is to put them in God’s hands. This has provided great peace of mind for me.

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