What to Know About Telehealth for Alzheimer’s Disease

A familiar setting can put someone with Alzheimer’s disease at ease

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Telehealth has been shown to have an increasingly beneficial role in the medical assessment and ongoing management of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is a type of neurodegenerative dementia, and one of the primary effects of the condition is a decline in independence. Because of this, people who have Alzheimer’s disease often need hands-on support from family members or professional caregivers.

Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia are associated with an increased risk of becoming very sick when exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19. You and your doctor might decide that, due to the associated risk of severe COVID-19 infection, it’s best to avoid exposure to the virus whenever possible.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical clinics and offices have been taking precautions to see patients safely, but if you are more comfortable staying home, telehealth is now a viable option.

People living with Alzheimer's disease need help from caregivers

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When to Use Telehealth for Alzheimer’s Disease 

You can use telehealth for a few different aspects of Alzheimer’s disease care. Generally, using telehealth for Alzheimer’s disease involves the person who has the condition, their caregiver, and their healthcare professional.

Cognitive rehabilitation: Memory clinics may provide cognitive rehabilitation via telehealth. Cognitive rehabilitation is an ongoing process that is most effective when done consistently. It cannot reverse the disease, but it can help manage the effects and reduce symptoms such as agitation and depression.

Disease surveillance: Alzheimer’s disease progresses through stages. Some aspects of Alzheimer’s disease progression can be monitored with digital tools that measure signs of movement, activity, and cognition.

Assessment of cognitive function and mood: Cognitive functions and mood can be evaluated with methods such as a medical examination and standardized questionnaires, including the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA). Healthcare providers can often carry out some of these assessments with the use of telehealth.

Primary care: People living with Alzheimer’s disease can experience medical issues either related to dementia or unrelated, some of which can be taken care of via telehealth. Your provider may be able to determine whether treatment without an in-person visit is appropriate, or they might recommend in-person follow-up testing, physical examination, or treatment after assessing the situation with a preliminary telehealth visit. 

Caregiver support: Caregivers take on a great deal of responsibility in caring for a person living with Alzheimer’s disease. Often, family caregivers need guidance, instruction, and advice from experienced professionals. This type of support can be provided via telehealth visits.

When to Be Seen in Person

Alzheimer’s disease often affects people of advanced age who also have other medical conditions. Dementia can predispose to several complications, including lack of self-care and injuries.

It is important to get prompt medical attention for these issues because problems can become serious—or even life-threatening without timely evaluation and treatment.  

People who have Alzheimer’s disease should see a medical provider in person for:

  • Fever or unexplained pain
  • Falls or injuries
  • Bruises
  • A wound that looks red or oozes pus
  • Confusion or lethargy
  • Inadequate eating or drinking
  • New problems with incontinence
  • Agitation, severe distress

Keep in mind that dementia can inhibit a person from expressing discomfort or communicating. Signs of problems like a broken bone or an infected wound can include agitation or confusion rather than a clear expression of pain.

Benefits and Challenges 

There are several advantages to using telehealth as an adjunct in the care of Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Familiarity: Often, people who have Alzheimer’s disease can experience disruption in unfamiliar surroundings. Staying home for medical appointments can be preferable for someone who becomes anxious in a new environment.
  • Physical safety: Dementia can make it challenging to get around safely and can increase the risk of falling. Having appointments at home, without the added task of transportation and the challenge of getting around a new space, can be safer than traveling to an office or clinic.
  • Avoiding infection exposure: Exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19 can have serious consequences for people who have dementia. Getting some health care via telehealth is one way to avoid exposure to contagious infections in general.

Challenges

Telehealth isn’t always practical or accessible for everyone and every situation that a person with Alzheimer’s disease might encounter. While telehealth can have its advantages in Alzheimer’s disease care, it comes with some challenges and limitations:

  • Technology: Many people who have Alzheimer’s disease do not have access to technology and do not know how to use it, making telehealth visits overwhelming or impossible.
  • Insufficient communication: The diminished cognition and communication that results from Alzheimer’s disease can make it hard for healthcare professionals to detect what is going on during a telehealth visit. 
  • Lack of standardization: New tools used to digitally assess function in Alzheimer’s disease have not been standardized. The information they provide has not been established in terms of defining the disease’s progression or identifying late stages.

How to Prepare for a Telehealth Visit for Alzheimer’s Disease 

If you are taking care of someone who has Alzheimer’s disease, you can discuss the option of telehealth with the patient and their healthcare professionals. If they would like to try it, you can check with their healthcare payer to see if the cost of telehealth visits would be covered.

You can begin by making an appointment to try it out, giving everyone involved a chance to assess the benefits.

Will Insurance Cover Telehealth for Alzheimer’s Disease?

Medicare, Medicaid, and most private health insurance plans provide coverage for some telehealth services, and some of this coverage may include portions of Alzheimer’s disease care. Policies regarding telehealth coverage have been changing, and you will have to check the most updated regulations regarding your plan.

If you do not have health insurance, you will have to pay for your telehealth visit on your own, and it might be a different cost than in-person care. Whether you have health payer coverage or not, be sure to ask about your own out-of-pocket cost before you schedule your appointment.

In preparation, it’s important to take medications as prescribed. You should also keep track of mood, cognition, or any new symptoms or concerns. The provider may have given you a list of issues to keep track of. When making note of symptoms or concerns, be sure to include their frequency, duration, timing, triggers, and associated symptoms.

If the provider has ordered any diagnostic tests, such as a urine test or blood test, it’s important to get these done before the telehealth appointment so you can discuss the results and any new treatment plan that might be based on those results.

What Happens During the Visit 

The visit will typically require the assistance of the patient’s caregiver. The provider will ask about symptoms and overall effects of the condition, as well as any new issues or concerns that have arisen.

During the visit, the provider might ask specific questions about mood and thinking skills, or might perform a cognitive test. They may also ask the patient to demonstrate muscle movements, coordination, or balance.

They will discuss the results of diagnostic tests and what the results mean. A treatment plan will be discussed—which may include a plan to start new medications or procedures.

Rehabilitation exercises may also be given via telehealth. This can involve a variety of techniques, as well as virtual interaction and instruction with the therapist.

After the appointment, you can determine whether you, the patient, and the healthcare professional have considered the visit to be beneficial and whether you would like to continue to have future visits via telehealth.

A Word From Verywell

Living with Alzheimer’s disease is a challenge for the person experiencing the condition and for their day-to-day caregivers—whether loved ones or professionals. Medications, education about the condition, and interventions like cognitive therapy can help control symptoms.

Getting regular medical care and preventative care for other health issues can improve quality of life and prevent health complications. Telemedicine has a role in Alzheimer’s disease management when combined with in-person medical care and ongoing support from caregivers. 

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