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What to do when Alzheimer’s, dementia make relatives fearful of vaccine

Right now, all people in Washington over 65 are eligible to get the vaccine because they are most at-risk for COVID complications. But what do you do when Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia are making an elderly family member reluctant to get the vaccine?

It’s a situation families across the state are facing, but it does not have to mean your loved one goes without a vaccine.

Memory loss disease often makes a person wary of anything new or different, explained Julie Ambachew, a nurse and senior regional health services consultant with Aegis Living, which operates assisted living and memory care facilities around the Puget Sound.

This means that a person who has been diligent about vaccines and preventative care their entire life can suddenly decide that they do not want a coronavirus vaccine, simply because it is unfamiliar.

Vaccine appointment process a long, confusing headache for Washingtonians

“They’re used to having their own patterns, and you’re introducing them to a stranger, going into a strange environment, and it’s difficult for them to get out of their pattern,” Ambachew said. “They do well seeing the same people, when they go through the same routines, and once you take them out of that routine, their anxiety goes up a little.”

Add in a PPE-clad stranger carrying a needle, and that can make the idea of getting a vaccine downright scary for someone with dementia.

To combat this, Ambachew suggested presenting the vaccine in a happy light as what it truly is — an event to celebrate.

“What you can do in your own home is saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to make a day of it, we’re going to have fun,'” she said. “You’re going to do whatever their favorite thing is that day — you’re going to make a full day of it.”

A person could take their loved one to get their favorite food or go do a safe favorite activity after getting the shot, such as taking a drive through some of Washington’s natural beauty or having a picnic at a park. No matter what the excursion, any chance to get out of the house will be a change in scenery after having stayed at home for nearly a year.

If possible, Ambachew also suggested having another eligible family member or friend go along to get vaccinated at the same time, so the dementia patient will feel less alone.

When planning a vaccine day out, it’s vital to be honest. Do not pretend you’re going to get ice cream, and then show up at the doctor’s office. Lying to your family member will only create mistrust for the future, Ambachew said. Instead, be truthful about the vaccine, but positive.

Aegis recently tried this method to great success, turning the vaccination area into a party.

“In one community, we even had a balloon arch that they had to pass to get to an area with upbeat music and people who were cheering,” Ambachew described.

After they were inoculated, residents could get stickers signifying they were vaccinated, similar to “I voted” stickers, and pose at a photo booth.

“Instead of focusing on the negative, we really tried to focus on the positives that are going to come from this,” Ambachew said.

The biggest mistake family members of dementia patients make is trying to reason with their loved one, Ambachew said. Throwing a bunch of serious and distressing COVID facts at them — such as saying, “If you don’t get this vaccine, you could get sick and die” — is not only futile in that it expects them to be able to logically connect the dots, but it will also likely scare and upset them.

“Even though we want to focus on the facts, it can be hard for them to comprehend what those facts are,” Ambachew said. “We don’t want to make light of the situation, because it isn’t a light situation, but you don’t want to go too far down that hole where it gets too negative.”

It’s important that your relative feels at ease — and a key part of that is making sure that you are also at ease, since they may be able to sense your anxiety. Finding the way to get through to them at their level may require more than one attempt, so try to stay patient.

“What worked before may not work again, so we’re not going to try that, we’re going to try something new,” Ambachew said. “You have to meet every individual in their own place to see what works for them.”

If all else fails, try noting that a doctor has recommended the vaccine.

“If they know that a doctor recommends it, they know that that’s something that’s important,” Ambachew said.



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