‘It’s been tough’: Grand Strand family opens up on difficulties of caregiving, Alzheimer’s and COVID-19


MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — About 48% of those living in nursing homes are living with some kind of dementia according to the South Carolina chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Now, the isolation that comes with COVID-19 can take an emotional toll on those with a memory disease, or their caregivers and family members.

News13 spoke with the family of one woman, living in a Myrtle Beach memory care facility, and got a look at how their window visits keep each other in good spirits.

Shaw Ashley’s great-grandmother Elaine Cowart was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six or seven years ago, but Shaw says she’s still the Nani he’s always known.

“My great-grandmother is confined to a wheelchair, but she’s still sassy and she’s still got her spunk about her,” Shaw smiled.

He used to spend every Friday night at her house, but now, because of the pandemic, he’s missing her hugs.

“I haven’t been able to touch her or see her in person since February,” he said.

But, the staff at Brightwater Memory Care in Myrtle Beach has helped them still be able to visit through the window.

Because she’s been isolated to keep her safe from the virus, Shaw said sometimes that can cause confusion.

“I don’t think she fully realizes why we can’t come see her. When we do window visits, she asks why can’t we come in,” he said.

“Dementia is particularly difficult because we’re used to interacting with a family member in the way that we have our whole life,” said Beth Sulkowski, the Vice President of Communications and Advocacy for the Alzheimer’s Association — South Carolina Chapter.

Sulkowski said those with a family member that’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s may have to change their caregiving plans due to COVID-19, to something where they may not be seeing them as often, or may have to pay for care.

“Caregiving is hard in the best of times. So, I think everyone is having to think a little bit differently about how they go about caregiving,” Sulkowski said.

Towards the beginning of the pandemic, Shaw decided to join the Alzheimer’s Association and recently trained to be a community educator on the topic.

Each year, the association has a Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Market Common. This year, due to COVID-19, they’re encouraging small teams or individuals to walk wherever they want instead of gathering in a large group.

The walk — planned for Nov. 7 — will begin with an opening promise garden ceremony that can be streamed live by participants. Each flower in the ceremony represents different reasons each person has for being involved.

Shaw’s grandmother, his dad’s mom, was also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and recently got COVID-19.

“It was looking like this was going to be the end, so they were able to let us come in, you know, fully dressed in the suits, and basically say our goodbyes,” Shaw’s dad Brian Ashley said.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, about 40% of people who died from COVID-19 have been in long term care facilities with residents or workers, like a nursing home.

But Shaw’s Memaw recently pulled through, but he said it made her condition worse.

The Alzheimer’s Association reports more than 95% of people living with a memory disease have another condition going on that could increase their risk of complications from COVID-19.

For now, Shaw’s dad said if you know someone with Alzheimer’s, try to hang in there.

“Pray a lot. Be very patient, you know, and try to be, you know, as aggressive as you can with wherever their care facility is or whatever as far as trying to get a FaceTime call or trying to visit,” Ashley said.

If you or someone you know is caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, the Alzheimer’s Association has a free, 24-hour hotline at 800-272-3900.

The association has support groups and education programs available as well for those in need of assistance.

Shaw Ashley is the sponsorship chair for the Myrtle Beach Walk to End Alzheimer’s. If any local companies are interested in sponsoring for the walk, please contact Shaw at shawc.ashley@gmail.com.

If you’d like to sign up for the walk on Nov. 7, you can go to alz.org/walk to sign up.

You can donate to the Alzheimer’s Association in honor of Shaw’s great-grandmother and grandmother at act.alz.org/goto/shawashley.

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