Recovery and rehabilitation for people with dementia after having coronavirus

A person with dementia who has been in hospital with COVID-19 may need extra support when they leave. Read our advice on how to support a person with their recovery and rehabilitation.

How long does it take to recover from coronavirus?

After any serious illness – and especially following a stay in intensive care – it is normal to take weeks or even months to recover.

Recovery starts in hospital. The person may then be discharged home with extra help or to a community hospital for intermediate care. The hospital discharge team will advise on all this but speak to the GP if the person is discharged home and is struggling without rehabilitation support. You can also visit the NHS website Your COVID Recovery for general advice.

NHS Reset: We need a national rehabilitation strategy

Karin Orman, from the Royal College of Occupational Therapists, and Alzheimer's Society are calling for a national approach to rehabilitation to support people with dementia directly and indirectly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Find out more

It is likely that a range of healthcare professionals will work with a person with dementia to help them recover as much as they can. Which professionals are involved will depend on the exact support the person needs.

As a carer you can really help with their rehabilitation, so ask each professional how you can do this. If you’ve not yet done it, completing our This is me leaflet with the person can help professionals get to know them a little.

The person may have good and bad days. Recovery takes a long time and a lot of effort.

Watch a video from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy

Breathing and physical fitness

Someone who has been on mechanical ventilation to help them breathe will often continue to feel breathless and get tired very easily. They will have lost strength when sedated in bed.

A physiotherapist can advise on coping with breathlessness and breathing techniques. They will also help a person do physical exercises, such as seated exercises, to gradually build up their strength and balance. 

Eating and drinking

The right food is important to support recovery. A dietitian can advise on what to eat to regain strength and weight. For example, protein – eggs, fish, nuts, beans or meat – is better than lots of fruit and veg.

Our sense of smell plays a significant part in giving us an appetite but it can be lost in COVID-19. Smell and taste may not return to normal for some time, even when the fever and cough have long gone.

Some people will have problems with swallowing after being on mechanical ventilation. Eating and drinking slowly in small amounts may help, as will good mouth hygiene (including regular teeth brushing).

A speech and language therapist can advise on problems with swallowing.

Day-to-day skills

A person with dementia who has been in hospital with severe COVID-19 may lose some of the independence or everyday skills (for example, cooking or showering) that they had before catching the virus. 

An occupational therapist will work with you and the person to agree realistic goals and then plan how to meet these. This will mean creating a personalised schedule of activities and rest breaks for the day – and following the progress of each activity. An occupational therapist can also advise on equipment and adaptations.

Memory, thinking and reasoning (cognition)

People with mild cognitive impairment or dementia are likely to find their symptoms have got worse when they’ve had severe COVID-19. This could be due to:

  • low oxygen levels in the body
  • mechanical ventilation
  • coronavirus getting into nerve cells in the brain
  • delirium.

There are lots of practical things you can do to help someone cope with memory loss, from using simple notes to technical equipment. Keeping physically, mentally and socially active may also help slow any further decline.

A few people who had delirium in hospital will still have some of the symptoms three or even six months later. The GP can refer for support from a community mental health nurse, psychologist or occupational therapist.

Mental health

Longer-term mental health problems can develop after severe COVID-19, especially if the person has needed mechanical ventilation or had delirium. The person may have:

  • anxiety
  • depression 
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can include upsetting and distorted nightmares, perhaps even feelings or impressions that hospital staff were trying to harm the person. 

Our advice on anxiety and depression may be useful. Supporting the person to talk openly about their experience can sometimes help, as will having good sleep hygiene (routines and environments that help someone sleep better). Ask the GP if symptoms persist. They may offer medication or talking therapies, or refer the person to a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist or counsellor.

Long COVID

A few people with coronavirus develop ‘long COVID’. Symptoms are similar to those above (also pain), but they can emerge after only mild COVID-19 without hospital care and last for months. Speak to your GP for advice.

Speak with a dementia adviser

If you’re ever unsure which healthcare professionals are the best to help with a particular problem, call our Dementia Connect support line for advice.

Call our support line Find out more
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