For Seniors With Dementia, the Choice to Live Alone Can Be a Risky One

Study identifies safety issues, lack of social activities and health care

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Black noted that "there's some effort to make use of technology" to stay in touch with mentally failing family members. "Like Skype and [other methods] that kind of allow people to have a sense of that person, even if they're not close by."

Dr. Alex Smith, at the division of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, said the new study was needed.

"We know a heck of a lot about the people who are living in nursing homes because there is so much data available about them," Smith said. "It's so much harder to study the people who are living in the community with dementia -- when that is the overwhelming majority of people."

In the Dec. 26 New England Journal of Medicine, Smith detailed the case of a 96-year-old widower in extremely bad health who insisted on living alone, and refused care from "strangers" at home. His son, living at a distance, was concerned about the unsafe, unsanitary conditions he found during monthly visits.

Smith suggested that it might be feasible for physicians to make at least an initial home visit to such patients. Such visits could give doctors a truer picture of the patient's living conditions and safety, and help set realistic thresholds for when it would be too hazardous for them to stay in the home.

Kallmyer noted that the new Baltimore study didn't delve into the cost of care. "It's really expensive," she said. "You know, if you can afford to pay a private duty companion to come in at $20 an hour and take care of your family 24/7, that's going to help you have choices there. And some people don't have that option."

The new study is part of ongoing research to determine whether the use of in-depth needs assessments, followed up by care coordination, would be effective on a larger scale. If evidence is strong, Black said, such interventions could perhaps be covered by publicly funded programs like Medicare.

When it comes to living in the community, the needs and capabilities of the caregiver also come into play, not just the needs of the person with dementia, Black said. "It involves safety and quality of life for both those individuals."

Tomorrow: What about the caregiver's needs?

More information

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