Written by Ryleigh Jasmin for dementianc.org
More than six million Americans live with Alzheimer’s, and there are several more with other types of dementia. In fact, dementia deaths have increased by 16% since the pandemic started, yet even before COVID-19, caring for this particular demographic was always a challenging task. Add COVID-19’s social distancing and strict health protocols into the mix, and you’re looking at backbreaking work.
Around the world, the pandemic has impacted mobility by restricting travel and increasing social distancing measures. This has forced several clinics to close down, and healthcare professionals and their patients have turned to telehealth instead. Telehealth has essentially allowed health workers to continue to care for and monitor dementia patients.
Response to the pandemic has been varied, but recent weeks have seen a slew of countries all over the globe restricting travel, limiting internal movements, and increasing social distancing measures.
Benefits of Telehealth in Dementia Care
For dementia patients who don’t live in specialized elder care units, access to dementia expertise could be difficult, especially with COVID-19. In response, telehealth initiatives such as the Care Ecosystem by the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have sprung up. The Care Ecosystem is a holistic approach that delivers dementia care over the phone. In North Carolina, telehealth expansion is supported by insurance providers, like the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, which have begun to cover virtual visits via phone and virtual calls at the same rate as face-to-face visits. The state has also secured Medicaid billing flexibility for telehealth, specifically for low-income seniors and disabled persons. Even psychiatric care has moved to the digital realm, as psych professionals continue to provide therapy through telepsych sessions, even if some of them can only bill for a portion of their total session.
This way, people living with dementia can get the help they need whenever and wherever they may be, via a simple phone call. Regular telehealth conversations and calls help build trusting relationships between the patients and the care team. They also strengthen the synergy between physicians, nurses, caregivers, and other members of the healthcare team.
As there’s more collaboration among the care team in the telehealth arrangement, they’re able to construct better treatment plans for dementia patients. The findings from the Care Ecosystem are proof of that. They’ve shown that those within the program saw significant improvements in several health and psychological aspects compared to those receiving the usual care. Furthermore, telehealth provides more support to family members and other caregivers who would otherwise find it difficult to reach medical experts.
The improved outcomes include better overall patient well-being, physical health, energy level, mood, memory, and relationships, among many others. Telehealth is even shown to be associated with the decreased number of ER visits from dementia patients. It also has a number of positive benefits for the care team—including family members, and other unpaid caregivers who have had to bear the responsibility of caring for dementia patients—since it helps lower levels of depression and reduces the burden on caregivers.
Further Developments in Dementia Care
Remote Healthcare Education
The pandemic has pushed demand for specialized healthcare workers to skyrocket even further. Each sector within the healthcare system is using all their resources, highlighting many shortages, especially in Elder Care. Fortunately, the rise of telehealth also brought with it the widespread adoption of remote healthcare education. This has helped address the increasing demand for medical professionals such as geriatric nurses.
While geriatrics (elder care) is highly specialized care, today’s working nurses are able to pursue it more conveniently by taking online RN to BSN programs. This allows them to upgrade their skill set to more advanced specialties while still working, as the entire program can be done in as little as three semesters. Plus, since the program is taught completely online, this gives nurses an upper hand, as healthcare is expected to embrace telehealth as a long-term solution — given that these nurses are well adjusted to these remote arrangements. They’ll need to develop new work habits and online professional etiquette. With more digitally literate nurses who are adept at elder care, telehealth will continue to be invaluable for dementia care. For other dementia caregivers, there’s a wealth of resources you can find online. Dementia Alliance of North Carolina provides education opportunities such as statewide workshops and seminars, conferences, and professional education throughout the year.
Telehealth is no longer just a conversation between the patient and caregivers. These days, it involves a coordinated call with the rest of the care team, and in some cases, with the patient’s family or support system. This is especially important for dementia patients who may possibly have other cognitive impairments, as it’s essential that they’re given maximum assistance. A new partnership between North Carolina hospitals, volunteers, and the non-profit organization, TeleHealth Access for Seniors, have pushed interdisciplinary care to the virtual realm. They aim to provide smartphones, laptops, and tablets to seniors and low-income patients so that they can connect with doctors, therapists, and other medical care professionals.
Video visits and coordinated calls are essential for telehealth in elder care. They allow for a better treatment plan and application for the patients. Health and psychology professionals, together with specialized nurses and family members, can come together to exchange information and decide on the best course of action. That being said, there’s still a need for a continued push for telehealth and infrastructure to support internet access. Additionally, digital literacy should also be highlighted in the age of telehealth. Patients and their careers need to know how and where to access the much-needed services
Dementia care evolves with the times, and telehealth will continue to be a valuable tool for both patients and healthcare workers.