People with dementia are amongst the most vulnerable to COVID-19 and are spending more time in hospital, according to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
Dementia Australia Executive Director, Advocacy and Research, Dr Kaele Stokes, said more awareness and understanding is required to provide increased support for this group.
“From our perspective, something we can all do is tackle the discrimination that people living with dementia, and their carers and families, experience. That’s what Dementia Action Week is about,” said Dr Stokes.
“We know it can be an incredibly isolating experience to get a dementia diagnosis and that friends and family don’t necessarily know how to support somebody. But a diagnosis doesn’t mean that they can’t live well with the condition for a long period of time.
“A person with dementia can maintain their independence and autonomy, and can live well and have a high quality of life.”
Quality of life for many people with dementia has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, however.
Dementia, the second leading cause of death in Australia at 9.6% of all deaths, was present in 31% of the 5,400 COVID related deaths registered by June 30, 2022, according to the AIHW.
The indirect effects of reduced healthcare services coupled with a rise in mental illness was believed to have contributed to those figures.
Dr Stokes explained that the pandemic has had a severe impact on people with dementia who required crucial support services and social interaction.
“We did see significant changes to cognitive abilities and that meant once someone lost their cognitive ability it didn’t come back,” said Dr Stokes.
“Because there was so much disruption during the pandemic when aged care facilities went into lockdown, families and friends could no longer visit their loved ones.”
She added that people with dementia lost out on the social benefits of one-on-one conversations and personal care and support offered by family members.
COVID-19 may be a contributing factor to the accelerated development of Alzheimer’s disease, the second most common type of dementia, although Dr Stokes said it is too early to understand the exact correlation between the two.
AIHW also revealed that the average length of hospitalisation was five times longer for a person with dementia at 13 days compared to 2.6 days for the average person.
A range of factors contributed, including unsuitable care within a hospital setting.
“Somebody with a cognitive impairment might not understand what they’re in there for – there’s staff bustling around, people don’t introduce themselves or tell you what they’re there for, they just take your blood pressure or give you a pill,” explained Dr Stokes.
“That is disorientating and may lead to them lashing out and being deemed to be a danger and needing to be restrained or medicated.
“If they’re medicated that increases the risk of them having other health conditions like urinary tract infections. There’s an escalation of symptoms that can occur in a hospital environment.”
People diagnosed with younger onset dementia – anyone that is younger than 65 – were even worse off. On average they are hospitalised for 22 days.
A lack of understanding around their symptoms or diagnosis is often coupled with unsuitable accommodation options upon release.
“We find that forms of younger onset dementia tend to affect the frontal lobe of the brain which controls mood and behaviour. It may be that a younger person is more aggressive and difficult to support in a hospital environment.
“Forms of appropriate accommodation are also limited. Going into residential aged care is not appropriate because they’d be surrounded by older people who do not have the same interests or physical capabilities.
Since younger onset dementia patients have no place to go, they can end up bouncing around the hospital system.
Current estimates for the number of people with dementia range between 386,200 from the AIHW, to 487,500 from Dementia Australia.
That equates to 15 people with dementia per every 1,000 Australians, but Dr Stokes believes there needs to be more work done as a society to create an inclusive environment for people with dementia.
“It’s really important as a community and as individuals that we are aware of dementia in the same way we support someone with physical disabilities,” said Dr Stokes.
“Access ramps and disability car parks are just the norm now in our day to day life and I think the same needs to happen for dementia support.
“The vast majority of us will come into contact with somebody living with dementia so it’s important that we know how to take those steps towards making a more inclusive society for us all.”
To find out more about Dementia Action Week or to find an event near you, head to the Dementia Australia website.