The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially tough for those with dementia and their caregivers, making them even more isolated than usual and presenting new challenges. During this time, though, many communities have increased their outreach for these patients, particularly veterans with dementia.
The Albany Stratton VA Medical Center and the Alzheimer’s Association of Northeastern New York are among those providing more help. Through a new partnership, staff at the medical center will be given training to become certified Dementia Care Specialists so they can better provide care for these patients.
The organizations are also getting packages out to patients and their caregivers that will allow them to have an educational consultation every three months. Elizabeth Smith-Boivin, Executive Director of the Northeastern New York Alzheimer’s Association, says this will allow these veterans and their families to remain independent somewhat longer.
She explains, “We do know that it helps to keep people at home an average of almost two years longer when this coaching and education along the journey.”
Peter Potter, Public Affairs Officer from the Albany Stratton VA, says dementia cases in veterans tend to be more varied than just Alzheimer’s, due to the different things they may have gone through in combat.
He explains, “What we find in a lot of veterans is that they don’t suffer from Alzheimer’s disease specifically but rather another form of dementia. What we see from the VA’s aspect, folks that have come off combat or have been around IED’s and explosions.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says POWs are at a much more heightened risk of developing dementia, as well. A 2014 study from the San Francisco VA Health Care System and the University of California, San Francisco, looked at more than 180,000 veterans over age 55. It found that the participants who had been POWs were roughly 50% more likely to develop dementia later in life. For POWs who also developed post-traumatic stress disorder, the risk more than doubled. Older veterans with a traumatic brain injury had a 60% higher risk of developing dementia over a nine-year period, as well.
Recognizing this risk, groups in Ohio have been working to further research veterans with dementia so they can be better helped.
In the fall, the Cleveland Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center received a grant from the National Institute on Aging to enroll veterans with early Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment in dementia research. What they discover will then be available in a national repository to help other researchers studying the topic.
Dr. Martha Sajatovic, outreach, recruitment, and engagement core leader at the Cleveland Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, says, “We’re very excited. This is a unique opportunity. It takes advantage of the strengths that Ohio has in terms of veterans… Veterans are a group that is at higher risk for dementia-related conditions, and they aren’t uniformly well represented in the research.”
The Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center is working with the research team to identify veterans for the project.
Another area organization is doing what it can to help those needing support in the meantime. The Alzheimer’s Association’s Military Task Force out of Dayton is working to find veterans with cognitive issues so they can provide them with needed education, care consultations and general support. Among those taking part in this outreach effort are Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and the Dayton VA Medical Center.
Cassie Barlow is chair of the task force and a former 88th Air Base Wing commander at Wright-Patterson. She says, “I am trying to end the stigma around getting help. People go to the doctor for physical ailments. Why not do the same for cognitive and memory issues?”
Those involved in this project hope it can be a model for other veterans agencies and organizations to follow.
With many outbreaks of COVID-19 in nursing homes, some families have chosen to bring loved ones with dementia home to keep them safe. As a result, home care businesses and services have seen an increase in need.
Tim Welbaum, a United States Army Reserve officer, owns Visiting Angels South Central Michigan in Adrian, Michigan. He lives with post-traumatic stress disorder and has faced memory loss issues due to his service in Afghanistan. His company provides home care and respite services, and many of those utilizing the services are veterans with dementia.
Welbaum says, “As a result of COVID-19, the demand for home care services has drastically spiked. The trend we’re seeing is the adult children removing their parents or loved ones from facilities such as assisted living or nursing homes in an effort to move them away from the higher risks of contracting COVID while living around others. The largest issue we now face throughout the homecare industry is finding caregivers to keep up with the heavy demand for our services.”
Samantha Wright, whose father was a Vietnam veteran, is a family nurse practitioner at the Aleda E. Lutz VA Medical Center in Saginaw, Michigan. She says veterans with dementia don’t always have the resources they may need, which was true even before the pandemic.
She explains, “Access is an issue. There aren’t enough providers, geriatricians or cognitive rehab programs in Michigan. Additionally, primary care providers often don’t feel comfortable diagnosing dementia or doing cognitive scoring. And once they do have a diagnosis, there’s often a sense of not knowing what to do next.”
The Veterans Health Administration has launched a Dementia System of Care to ensure caregivers and patients can get more comprehensive, coordinated, and personalized care. It’s also expanded its caregiver program, which provides resources, education, support, a financial stipend, health insurance and beneficiary travel to those who are eligible.
Wright is pushing for a bit more. She’d like to see non-pharmacy-based interventions and staff training at the VA in Saginaw and in the region, explaining, “We owe it to the veterans to do more. They’ve already served, and we need to do all we can to get things in place and ensure that quality of life is there.”