On an average summer day, Paul Lea walks more than 10 kilometres. The 67-year-old Torontonian has lived well with his dementia diagnosis for several years, finding comfort in his routines as he continues to live alone. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the past months far from normal for everyone, Lea included.
“I don’t like changes. I get frustrated,” says Lea. “In the summertime, I have my music in my earbuds, and then I walk. It’s my routine and I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to do that again.”
Lea received his initial vascular dementia diagnosis in 2009 after suffering a stroke the year before. Though his journey has included challenges, he’s remained active, noting that home reno projects in his bachelor apartment along with daily walks have kept him both mentally and physically engaged.
“I may be alone, but I’m not lonely,” says Lea. “I normally say there’s three of us here: me, myself and I, and I take care of the other two.”
Lea was proactive in staying home and practicing social distancing early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. When the first Canadian case was reported on January 25, 2020, Lea, who also has diabetes and a mild case of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hunkered down and shelved his daily strolls as a precaution.
Despite his independent nature, Lea says he misses social opportunities previously offered by his walks. Others who struggle with independence may be feeling this to an even greater degree. Concerns related to loneliness in older adults were present before COVID-19. For example, the Government of Canada’s 2013-14 Report on the Social Isolation of Seniors found that older adults living with mental health issues, including Alzheimer’s disease or other related dementia, are at a greater risk of social isolation than those without. Isolation can lead to negative health behaviours, including drinking, smoking and not eating well, and can increase the risk of hospitalization by four to five times. Now, with isolation essential, these concerns are only heightened.
At the time of publication, Lea remains at home, save for trips to the doctor’s office for appointments. DIY redecoration projects and spring cleaning have kept him engaged and moving, while playing video games on his Nintendo 64 has occupied his downtime.
An active advocate and speaker on his experience with dementia, Lea has also found refuge in technology, which allows him to meet with various groups via Zoom video calls. While its part business-as-usual, the meetings can often create a much-needed escape from isolation and add a jolt of socialization.
As this interview wraps up, a dog bark sound from his Amazon Echo informs Lea of his upcoming weekly video conference with friends and fellow advocates living with dementia — a remaining routine he looks forward to.
“We have a real hoot. We joke that if people were to listen in, they’d say ‘These people are nuts!’” says Lea.
While questions remain about the longevity of the pandemic, Lea has held on to a core approach that predates COVID-19 in his day-to-day life, recommending others in similar situations do the same: find a hobby, stay busy and look for the bright side.
“There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Lea. “No matter how minuscule it is, it’s up to you to make it brighter.” [ ]