Reports that as many as one in 10 dementia cases could have been missed during the pandemic are extremely concerning, as they suggest that the mental health impacts of living with dementia could be even more widespread than previously thought, particularly with recent lockdowns exacerbating the issue of loneliness among people with dementia. This news should therefore spur the sector to protect against a new epidemic of loneliness.
Already, more than half (56%) of people with dementia have reported feeling completely isolated since the beginning of the pandemic, while a third “felt like giving up” last year. But this is not just a “pandemic problem”, it is a longer-term issue which demands a future-proof solution. Elderly care providers should therefore invest in long-lasting partnerships to deliver therapeutic interventions which reduce recourse to over-medications and instead promote patient happiness and improved quality of life.
One in 10 cases missed
As a result of the pandemic, GPs reportedly made 50% fewer dementia assessments and 33% fewer referrals to memory clinics in the six months to April 2021, compared to the six months to March 2019. Consequently, there may be as many as 50,000 people in the UK currently unaware of their condition and unable to access the support which is most effective in the early stages of dementia.
Furthermore, the disruption caused by Covid-19 has created another issue, namely the upheaval of the daily routines and regular activities which are particularly important for those with dementia. For many people living with the condition, diagnosed or not, this leads to an increased risk of mental health issues which will not simply disappear now that social distancing measures have eased.
If one in 10 new dementia cases are being missed, therefore, the social care sector should prepare to combat a wellbeing crisis in the wake of the pandemic of even greater scope than expected.
Better support against loneliness
Combatting this crisis provides an opportunity for NHS Trusts and elderly care providers to invest in programmes which actively promote happiness and human connections among people living with dementia, rather than leading to an increase in medication, which only leads to further degradation of an individual’s quality of life.
Therapeutic interventions that prioritise people’s holistic wellbeing can also support elderly care providers to reduce dependence on PRN medications for individuals living with dementia. This is something we have seen first-hand through our partnerships with care homes across the UK. Interactive games which use light projection, for example, have been shown to help people living in care homes to build those all-important bonds with family, fellow residents, and supports teams.
The Happiness Programme, which combines interactive light technology with a structured and supportive training programme for all care workers, is a prime example of a scheme which improves peoples’ engagement with others and delivers all-round improvements in health and wellbeing outcomes. For example, users from the Orders of St John’s Care Trust have increased their interaction with staff and each other, benefitting visibly from the social and sensory stimulation which the Happiness Programme provides.
And even those with late-stage dementia, who may not be able to participate in group activities, can benefit from this type of intervention, as staff at Langdale House can attest. They have been taking the portable technology into individuals’ rooms, where residents can engage, sometimes just visually and audibly, if they cannot interact physically. It may seem a small change, but for those living with dementia, it can deliver huge improvements in quality of life.
Dementia is associated most frequently with memory loss, due to Alzheimer’s disease being the most common cause of the condition. However, frontotemporal dementia, for example, may present first through languages problems or changes in personality. It is therefore crucial that interactive light technology can encourage sensory stimulation and relaxation as well as reminiscence, providing solutions which support the broader understanding of dementia which we need.
Looking ahead, we also need to reduce dependence on over-medication, which remains one of the most critical issues in the support of older people with dementia. Care home residents in the UK are prescribed an average of seven medicines a day, at an estimated annual cost of £250 million to the NHS – and for many residents, medication intake can reach double figures in a single day. Alongside the NHS’s “Long Term Plan”, schemes such as the Happiness Programme can deliver genuine improvements in health and wellbeing while reducing reliance on anti-psychotic medications.
More than just a “memory loss disease”, dementia can impact people’s lives in many ways. It is therefore important that our approach to dealing with the condition is similarly holistic. By investing in partnerships and training for long-term therapeutic interventions, elderly care providers can prevent a new epidemic of loneliness and over-medication for people diagnosed with dementia. Indeed, catching those missed diagnoses is only the first step; what follows should keep the wellbeing of people living with dementia at its core.