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Outdoor time eases pandemic stress for dementia patients

Outdoor time eases pandemic stress for dementia patients
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June 29, 2020
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Outdoor time eases pandemic stress for dementia patients

By Holly Zachariah
The Columbus Dispatch
Posted Jun 28, 2020 at 4:53 AM
The coronavirus pandemic has been difficult for most everyone. But for people dealing with dementia, it has been especially trying. One memory-care facility in Dublin has seen improvement in residents’ moods just by getting them outdoors.

Nancy Moore used the spading fork to loosen the dirt and then she pulled a few weeds from among the petunias and the marigolds in the raised flower bed.

She wasn’t terribly excited about the task because gardening isn’t really her thing — the 90-year-old former dance teacher would much rather be tapping — but this is what her friends at Senior Star Dublin Retirement Village were doing Thursday afternoon so she joined them.

“I enjoy the flowers but not the garden work,” she said, right before she let loose of her walker and spent a couple minutes hop-shuffle-stepping, hop-shuffle-stepping to show off her dance moves. “It’s nice to be outside, though.”

And that seems to be the key.

Though the coronavirus pandemic has upended everyone’s life, perhaps it has been most troublesome for those with some level of dementia, such as Moore and her friends who are among the 36 residents who live in the memory-care support wing of Senior Star.

For many with dementing illness, there’s just no understanding why your family suddenly stopped visiting, why everyone’s wearing masks, why people are always demanding that you wash your hands.
Dr. Marian K. Schuda, medical director of OhioHealth’s John J. Gerlach Center for Senior Health, said the easiest way to explain it to people who have never dealt with someone with memory issues is to compare it to caring for a toddler.

“How do you get a 2-year old who is frustrated to settle down? How do you get a 3-year old who doesn’t understand why they can’t do something to stop doing it,” she said. “For patients with dementia it’s similar. It’s harder for them to understand what’s going on around them and they don’t have as many ways of coping as they used to.”

Program Director Jessie Ritter said that at Senior Star, one thing in the memory wing that helps the residents the most are the destination stations. These are stops on a sort of make-believe tour that transport the residents’ minds back in time and resurrect happy memories.

There is a nursery where they can care for dolls, a wardrobe filled with fancy dresses and suits and hats from bygone eras that they can dress in, an office with a manual typewriter and a rotary phone where they can get some work done.

But because of the repeated touching at these stations, they had to be closed for a time during the pandemic. Ritter said with all the necessary adjustments, staff saw real cognitive changes in some residents such as depression, aggression and increased confusion.

But when the weather finally turned nice and the secure outdoor garden with its own destination stations became available, moods improved.

Outside on the patio, in addition to gardening, residents can wash or sit in a 1957 Chevrolet, hang out at the bus stop at the corner of Senior and Star boulevards, hang clothes on the line, check the mailboxes, hang out in the rock garden or just lounge around.

Getting the residents outside and back into those tactile activities has made a world of difference, said Dionne Nicol, the facility’s administrator.

“Even just pulling weeds in the garden, it brings back happy memories,” Nicol said. “And it’s a sense of purpose.”

As the pandemic drags on, more and more people are calling the hot line of the Central Ohio Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association (800-272-3900) to seek guidance for caring for loved ones who seem to be failing more quickly now, said Vince McGrail, executive director and CEO.

“We are hearing it a lot: ‘I feel like she’s fading. I feel like she’s deteriorating and I don’t know what to do,’” McGrail said. “To that person with dementia, a change in routine, not being able to understand where their family is. It’s heartbreaking.”

More than 200,000 Ohioans live with some level of dementia, and McGrail said that as we emerge from the pandemic, getting back to contact and routine will be key.

Moore, who was munching on an ice-cream sandwich following her garden weeding and dance routine, hasn’t let the changes in routine get her down.

“I’m a happy person anyway,” she said. “I’m ancient but you got to keep going. What else are you gonna do?”

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