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COVID-19: Advice For Seniors And Their Families

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We’re all in this together: a sentiment packed with truth this winter season of 2020. As the coronavirus outbreak becomes a global pandemic right before our eyes, we find ourselves in totally uncharted waters.

We’re still learning more every day, but it’s clear now that seniors are at greater risk of suffering the effects of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus. For those 80 years of age and older, it is fatal around 15% of the time. Especially for those with underlying health conditions. 

This may be alarming news for those living in long-term care facilities, where pathogens like norovirus and influenza tend to catch easily and spread quickly. This happens because it’s much harder to truly “quarantine” a patient in a long-term care facility. The whole reason they are there is because they need help with activities of daily living. So these people need to be touched, and in close proximity to their caregivers. 

But if being in a long-term care facility is alarming, living at home may not be any better. Though an elderly person may be totally capable of living at home and caring for themselves right now, an illness like COVID-19 could have a devastating effect on them. It’s a fact that as a person ages, immune response weakens. As we know, those with chronic health conditions and weakened immune systems seem to be the hardest hit by COVID-19.

Advice from the US and abroad

So, what should you do? How can you avoid getting sick, and help stop the spread of the virus? The latest from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises everyone, particularly older adults and individuals with underlying health issues, to stay home and avoid all non-essential travel. This has become a global pandemic, so the whole world has begun working together to stop the spread. As of this writing, many communities are on lockdown, with air travel at a near standstill and the cruise industry ceasing operations for several weeks. There is no firm end date for when it’s back to business as usual. “We’re all in this together” means the same basic rules for everyone, regardless of age or health status:

  • Practice social distancing. Stay home, and don’t receive visitors unless absolutely necessary. If you have to see others, make sure it’s only healthy people and preferably no children, because they can be asymptomatic carriers.
  • If you have to go out, avoid large groups. Don’t shake hands or hug, and keep a distance of at least six feet from people. Avoid touching your face, and wash your hands immediately upon returning home.
  • Wash your hands and wrists often with hot, soapy water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Keep medications and groceries on-hand, but don’t leave home unless absolutely necessary. Have neighbors shop for your groceries if possible, and consider refilling any medications online.

How relatives can help senior family members

The key in getting through this, is communication. How tech-savvy your senior family member is may come into play here. A lot of seniors don’t have the latest smartphone or spend any time on social media. Loneliness may set in very rapidly for them, so it’s important to check in with a phone call at regular times. Marking it on their calendar might seem like a simple thing, but having something to look forward to is a great way to combat feelings of isolation. 

If a plan is not already in place, families may need to have uncomfortable discussions around end-of-life decisions. Important things need to be decided, such as whether they wish to be resuscitated or have chest compressions in the event of a heart attack. Though it’s tough to get through, it gives families a greater sense of peace once decisions are made.

Though you may be tempted to pull a loved one out of a long-term care facility, that decision should not be made lightly. If they will be removed to a home with children or a lot of chaos for example, that would likely make matters worse. If they are at risk for falls, bringing them into an unfamiliar place would increase that risk. Long-term care facilities are set up to minimize the risk of falls. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, health workers in nursing homes everywhere are receiving refresher training in infection control and the proper equipment to protect them and the residents. For several weeks they will be suspending social activities, and residents will eat in their rooms, to avoid congregating in large groups. 

Though it’s a scary time, it’s important not to make rash decisions. Moving your loved one may not be the right thing for them, so weigh it carefully.

Feelings of isolation are bound to crop up for many of us no matter where we are, so it’s important that we all be in touch. Call your friends and loved ones if you’re lonely, or if you think they might be lonely. Stay busy with board games, puzzles, movies, books, and good healthy food. Journaling is another great option, especially because this may be a really scary time. If that’s the case for you, allow your emotions to be what they are. Your mental health is valid, and so is what you’re feeling.

Symptoms and emergency warning signs

Symptoms of COVID-19 in all individuals include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. If you feel like you are developing symptoms, get in touch with your doctor.

Emergency warning signs include difficulty breathing, pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, and bluish lips or face. If any of these occur, phone 911 immediately.

It’s a great idea to make a list of important phone numbers and put it near your phone, this way you’ll have everything handy in the event you need it.

Whatever you can do… from taking meticulous care of your own health and hygiene, to reaching out to an elderly neighbor with a casserole, it’s all hands on deck these days. Social distancing, having tough talks and making plans, these are wonderful acts of solidarity with our community and loved ones. This virus is teaching us a lot of things, not the least of which is how fragile and precious life is… caring and prevention are key, and the more we know the better we can do.

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