Advocacy group sees sharp rise in dementia deaths during the pandemic

    Male caretaker helping senior man with walker in nursing home
    Getty Images Male caretaker helping senior man with walker in nursing home

    Deaths for Wisconsin residents with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia rose nearly 14% during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new analysis — another sign of how the coronavirus has been ravaging the healthcare system.

    Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was reviewed by the Alzheimer’s Association, which advocates for people with dementia as well as their families.

    Through October of 2020, Wisconsin deaths of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients were up 13.9% compared with the average annual deaths over the previous five years, the association stated.

    “This pandemic has really exacerbated the decline of individuals due to Alzheimer’s and dementia,” says Michael Bruhn, director of public policy for the Alzheimer’s Association Wisconsin chapter. “But for someone who doesn’t have Alzheimer’s or dementia, they’re able to do things to mitigate that isolation.”

    People with dementia, however, may respond with “agitation, frustration and anxiety,” he adds. “They don’t always understand what transpires in their situation.”

    The pandemic’s role in so-called excess deaths among these patients this year probably appears in several ways, Bruhn says.

    • Some deaths from COVID-19 might have gone undetected because of the lack of testing resources early in the pandemic — inaccurately attributed to dementia rather than the virus.
    • Older seniors are particularly vulnerable, both from underlying chronic conditions and because they often live in groups — nursing homes and other long-term care settings — where the virus can spread rapidly.
    • The pandemic has had indirect effects, some of them potentially fatal:  It has overburdened the healthcare system, led some people to fear seeking treatment and sparked massive job losses early on that sent the economy spiraling into recession.

    It’s too soon to tell how much each of those possible factors is responsible for the surge in deaths among dementia patients, however.  

    “We need to do additional research and study on these numbers,” says Bruhn. “We don’t have the causation quite yet.”

    Still another potential contributor to the added deaths has been the separation of older people in long-term care from family members, who might more readily recognize when a loved one is taking a downturn or when a caregiving employee might be neglecting or exploiting a patient.

    State nursing home ombudsmen who investigate care now have access to long-term care facilities again after initially being unable to visit because of social distancing requirements early in the pandemic, says Bruhn.

    But for family members and other people in a resident’s life, “there is still a concern because we don’t have the visitation rights now, which would provide just another set of eyes” to address the quality of care.

    COVID-19 — as with many other aspects of society — has shone a spotlight on longstanding challenges in the care of older people and has “exacerbated the direct care workforce shortage,” Bruhn says.

    “This pandemic has stressed an already stressed system to the point where we need to do some significant reform in the state of Wisconsin to make sure our loved ones are getting the care they deserve.”

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.