‘She would have lived,’ COVID-19 complicates Alzheimer’s treatment

Ansley Nevil's grandmother, Baylor alumna Linda Nevil, had Alzheimer's disease for around 10 years. Now, Ansley Nevil advocates for how students can care for those enduring it. Photo courtesy of Ansley Nevil

By Lauren Combs | Reporter

November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, and according to the Alzheimer’s Association 2021 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report, 6.2 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.

Dr. Dennis Myers — the Danny and Lenn Prince endowed professor for the residential care of older adults — said he was inspired to specialize in gerontology because of his relationship with his grandmother. Myers also serves on the North Central Texas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association Board.

“The experience of dementia is a whole range of neurocognitive disorders,” Myers said. “We use the term ‘dementia,’ which literally means without memory [and] is a hard journey for persons experiencing this journey, as well as for those that are caring for them.”

The Alzheimer’s Association report defines Alzheimer’s disease as the most common cause of dementia, with symptoms like memory loss, lack of problem-solving skills and language difficulties.

“The important thing is not the condition the person has, but the fact that this is a person that is fully human, fully attempting to make sense of their lives, and not get too focused or blinded by a diagnostic category,” Myers said. “So then the challenge becomes, ‘How can we as a society, we as helpers, value the personhood that’s present and at the same time accommodate for the memory losses that are occurring?'”

Myers said one of the best ways to serve a person with Alzheimer’s disease is to care enough to engage with them, even when engagement doesn’t seem possible.

Anna junior Ansley Nevil said her grandmother, Baylor alumna Linda Nevil, had Alzheimer’s disease for around 10 years.

“Gran Gran was very involved in Baylor,” Nevil said. “She was in choir. She was a Theta. She did the Miss Baylor Beauty Pageant and won second place. She was a chapel checker. She lived in Collins … It’s really interesting because even when she had Alzheimer’s, she would wear the same Baylor shirt every single day. She barely knew her name, did not know her age, did not know us, but knew that she went to Baylor and knew that she loved Baylor.”

However, Myers said the pandemic brought on loneliness and a state of panic in the Alzheimer’s disease community.

“Preliminary reports from the CDC indicate that there were at least 42,000 more deaths from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias in 2020 compared with the average of the five years before 2020,” the 2021 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report indicated. Additionally, the report said only 4% of those deaths listed COVID-19 as the cause of death.

“Something that is key for all Alzheimer’s patients is that they need stimulation,” Nevil said. “They can’t just be sitting there because they’re always trying to read the room and know how to respond, and if they’re not being stimulated and just like sitting there trying to do something, then they get stressed out.”

Nevil said her grandmother was put into quarantine without visitation rights, depriving her of the stimulation, familiarity and routine she needed.

“[Linda] Nevil was a resident in a memory care facility whose health rapidly declined after she was separated from her husband of 50 years, leading to her death on June 2, 2020,” Kim Roberts said in an article for The Texan. “Her story represents hundreds and thousands of other Texas residents who have suffered similar tragedies.”

House Bill 2324 was passed to ensure visitation rights and consistent routines for patients with Alzheimer’s disease amid the pandemic, and it was named the Linda Nevil Act to honor her and her family’s loss.

“If we were able to — like we wanted to — visit her or take her out of there, we would have so fast, and I truly think she would have lived if we were able to get her out of there, but we couldn’t,” Nevil said. “What I hope is that people are quickly taken out of Alzheimer’s nursing homes and put into a routine and stimulated if they have COVID. And I hope also that if they do pass because of COVID, very unfortunately, that they’ll be able to do that with their family members, because I wasn’t able to see her whenever she died.”