One of the most striking things about dementia is the physical decline that it can bring. My father went from being a man with a very imposing physique to someone whose body shrunk to less than half its size. He went from walking constantly to being unable to move independently, from feeding himself to being entirely dependent on others for his food and drink intake. He lost the fullness in his face as a result of having no teeth, his limbs became bony, his skin very fragile and prone to bruising and tearing, and he was doubly incontinent for the last nine years of his life.
This physical decline leaves the person much more susceptible to infections that can be potentially life-threatening. Losing weight makes the body more vulnerable generally, and losing mobility makes pressure sores more likely and respiratory illnesses more difficult to shake off. Swallowing problems greatly increase the risk of pneumonia as a result of choking, or dehydration from not being able to intake enough fluids. Lack of fluids means an increased risk of urinary tract infections, and incontinence doesn't help with that either. Incontinence can also contribute to pressure sores if the skin is not kept clean and dry, and in a person with fragile skin all over their body, skin infections as a result of cuts or scratches are also possible.
In fact if you sit and think about just how many illnesses can be associated with the physical decline that dementia brings it is actually frightening. Over my father’s 19 years with dementia, and particularly during the last few years when he became very frail, we experienced all of the above problems. It comes as no surprise to me that so many people with dementia end up in hospital; my dad needed hospital treatment for both pneumonias and UTIs during the last 9 years of his life. This involved IV antibiotics and fluids, plus oxygen therapy, suction and chest physio for the pneumonias and catheters for the UTIs.
Thankfully, given the very mixed experiences people with dementia can have in hospital (as I wrote about here), my father was mostly treated in his care home with oral antibiotics. The routine prescription of antibiotics may be increasingly controversial now, but in my dad’s case they certainly gave us additional precious time with him.
Illnesses in people with dementia, apart from being very distressing to watch, often make dementia symptoms much worse. Infections contribute hugely to increased confusion and disorientation, affect communication, and can result in a loss of independence in areas of personal care, continence and eating and drink that is not always regained. Sadly, however, it is almost impossible to avoid a loved one becoming ill.
Care staff are frequently compelled to come into work when they are unwell, since they will either not be paid or their employers will be short-staffed if they stay at home. Visitors often come into care homes and hospitals harbouring illnesses, and requests to stay away if you are unwell go unheeded. I distinctly remember encountering disgruntled relatives outside a care home I arrived at one day, unhappy that they were unable to visit their loved one due to the home experiencing an outbreak of diarrhoea and vomiting.
I am not suggesting that care homes can become sealed germ free places, clearly that is impossible, but halting the spread of illnesses within health and social care settings, and the wider community, has to be the overriding aim. It should never be the case that people with dementia are considered a burden that can be reduced by allowing illnesses to proliferate, putting the most vulnerable at risk of serious complications and possibly early death.
We all suffer when we are unwell with an infection, but people with dementia often struggle far more because they cannot articulate how they feel, what help they need or the treatments that they would want. In those circumstances they need particularly specialised care delivered by knowledgeable and sympathetic professionals, whose priority is to give that person the most effective care possible so that they have the best chance of recovery.
Sadly some illnesses are too severe to recover from – the last pneumonia my father had was one too many for his frail body and led to a slow decline until he passed away a month later. We always knew the day would come when he could no longer fight, and given his physical frailties and propensity for chest infections, it was highly likely that pneumonia would end his life. Understandably, having worked this out many years before he passed away, every time he was ill that chilling realisation that this could be his last fight loomed large on the horizon.
Of course you never know when these illnesses will strike – my dad had severe infections in the summer as well as the winter - but I know that the majority of carers are fearful of winter ills the most. They often hit our elderly, vulnerable loved ones the hardest, and not just in care homes either – many people living in their own homes struggle to keep warm enough and become more susceptible to respiratory problems as a result. So whilst us younger people are all striving to keep ourselves well, spare a thought for all those carers with frail relatives for whom this is a particularly worrying time of year. If anything persuades you to be mindful of good hand hygiene and infection control, I hope that preserving the wellbeing of our most vulnerable people is it.
Until next time...
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